Where Journalism and Television Documentary Meet: Connecting with Viewers `through Personal Stories and Subjective Approaches.' (Moving Pictures: Television and Film)
Mertes, Cara, Nieman Reports
Documentary journalism is alive and well, contrary to reports of its early demise. Yes, funding is extremely difficult to obtain, and broadcasts even harder to achieve. Of the hundreds of documentaries made each year, most never get beyond family, friends and the core interested constituencies. But at "P.O.V.," PBS's nonfiction showcase, where I am the executive producer, we are seeing more and more documentaries that handily meet the criteria of journalism.
Journalists, like the French with their language, are highly protective of their unique domain. Their job is unusual. The social function journalism fills involves a combination of expertise and trust, and yet, in the end, the outcome is inevitably subjective. There are few hard and fast rules, but many suggestive guidelines. And journalists are constantly refining the definition of their work and patrolling the borders of their practice for interlopers.
Central to determining whether something is or isn't journalism lie questions about truth, accuracy, motivation and fairness. Print journalism's relationship to these qualities has a long and pedigreed history. However, journalism done with words and images is relatively new, and deep suspicion remains in many quarters when judging a visually based medium in terms of its journalistic qualities--particularly moving images and, more specifically, images broadcast on television. So deep is the power of images to move us that some believe everything they see on television that is presented as fact. Conversely, knowing the heightened power words and images have to manipulate, some trust in little or nothing they see represented as mainstream news today.
Both responses are extremes, but passions have always run deep when it comes to questions about truth and media--particularly when pictures are involved. Writing about photography only 30 years after its invention, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in a much-quoted 1859 essay, was the first to identify photography's delicate dance with veracity. "Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us," Holmes wrote. "Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects as they hunt cattle in South America for their skins and leave the carcasses of little worth." This is an aggressive image, describing a world where content would always be sacrificed in the search for the most "curious, beautiful and grand" surface.
Holmes' statement is remarkably prescient. In today's television journalism, ever-new marketing goals and revenue-generating practices have become the standard by which all similar products are judged. These approaches frequently clash with journalism's goal to seek out and report informative, meaningful, verifiable stories about the world we live in. Yet surfaces dominate and content suffers daily in the broadcast journalist's world. And it's not as if this is an entirely new phenomenon.
Certainly, we can look back on "the good old days" when television news broadcasters worked with journalists on regular, in-depth, well funded productions about important social issues and didn't expect fact-finding to get mixed up with moneymaking. That era produced such classics as "Harvest of Shame." Of course, Edward R. Murrow complained of corporate interference in his work in the late 1950's and early '60's, so the tension between journalistic ideals and the reality of daily workplace politics is not new. Nevertheless, a fairly recent, radical shift has been widely noted in both the practice and reception of journalism.
Gone, too, are the days when what is printed is taken as "the truth," or at least generally believed, and what appears as news on television or radio is actually believed to be news by a skeptical audience. Today's journalists work under a cloud of public cynicism, pulling extra weight just to convince their audiences that their story is important, truthful and worth devoting time to. …