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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, Fall 2010

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Documentary is one of those rare art forms whose most ardent practitioners come from a wide swath of disciplines--fiction filmmaking, still photography and psychology, to name some--and one of the most vital and common sources is broadcast journalism.

In the last decade, as broadcast journalism succumbed to marketplace, shareholder and CEO pressures, seasoned veterans like Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings left (or were pushed from) their anchor chairs to pursue stories that necessitated more time and space than a 15-minute segment would warrant. And as the invasion of Iraq grew more complicated and intractable as the years went by, it was those intrepid makers like James Longley, Andrew Berends, Laura Poitras and a handful of others who went unembedded to ferret out a ground-level version of the truth. In a 2007 interview with Documentary, correspondent Christiane Amanpour, now with ABC News, affirmed, "Documentary is the new spot news. As daily coverage of news, especially foreign news, has dramatically diminished, documentary or longer form is the only way to get information across these days."

In this issue, we examine the two disciplines of journalism and documentary--where they converge and where they diverge, how one informs the other, what is transferable from one to the other. To kick things off in this collection of articles, Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson talks to a number of docmakers who have crossed over from the broadcast world. Although the idea for this theme came to us prior to the legal issues surrounding Joe Berlinger's Crude and Chevron's efforts to subpoena the filmmaker's footage, that story is certainly part of this issue, as are other documentary efforts in which journalistic practices are put to the test in jurisprudential contexts. Belinda Baldwin examines instances in which the documentary itself becomes exhibit A.

Ethics is a potential common-ground area between journalism and documentary, and, taking American University's recent study, "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work," as a touchstone, Wanda Bershen queries various filmmakers about how ethics figures in their work--and how journalism may or may not inform how they go about their documentary practice.

Two of the most prestigious honors in documentary and broadcast journalism--the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards and the George Foster Peabody Awards, under the auspices of Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia--have long honored work that evinces the best practices of journalism. Michelle Paster speaks to educators at both Columbia and Grady College about how documentary is taught within the context of journalism and, with respect to the awards, what the criteria are for judging or assessing documentary work vs. broadcast journalism.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White