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How Do You Keep the Real in Reality? The Need for a Documentary Code of Ethics

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

What is it about the nature of the documentary that the viewer automatically assumes the good faith of the filmmaker? It doesn't matter if the subject is life in an asylum for the disabled, or the personal stories of people who keep chickens as pets. When we watch a documentary, we are both voyeurs and near participants in someone else's reality, yet how can we know that what we are witnessing onscreen is the truth? Considering the seriousness with which we engage these films, and the power of the messages they often convey, it is surprising that a general set of standards--that could be held up to rigorous review--has not been developed. 

As the film and television industries continue to fracture and decentralize, the documentary has come into its own. Documentary films break box-office records and dominate cable programming. Groundbreaking and controversial subject matter often has monetary value, and documentary filmmakers are finding themselves facing new pressures in the blurring of truth, art and commerce.  

While the debate about ethics has been going on for decades, arguments about standards have now reached a critical point. New technology has opened up many doors for inexperienced and experienced filmmakers alike, creating new ways to reach end-users, but with little oversight. The rise of documentaries and documentary-like product, often churned out quickly and cheaply for cable televisions, raises multiple ethical issues. Recent controversy regarding re-enactments, use of archival footage and political truths in a string of high-profile, award-winning documentary films has put the genre on the hot seat with audiences and critics.  

It was no small event, then, when at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, American University's Center for Social Media presented the groundbreaking study "Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work." Funded by the Ford Foundation, and two years in the making, the research was conducted by Center Director Pat Aufderheide and research fellows Peter Jaszi and Mridu Chandra.  An advisory board composed of filmmaker and author Sheila Curran Bernard, filmmaker and professor Jon Else and documentary film scholar Bill Nichols reviewed final data.

The study's purpose was to establish the baseline research needed to begin articulation of actual ethical standards exclusive to documentaries. "Honest Truths" summarizes the results of 45 hour-long interviews, where respondents were asked to describe recent ethical challenges specific to their own work. The research pool consisted of 41 director and director/producers and four national television producers. All respondents were offered anonymity, although a few volunteered the use of their names and a desire to make their stories public. 

"We looked for a mix of independents, who worked primarily on their own projects and of independents, who primarily worked on contract for cable companies," says Aufderheide about the study's selection. "They had to have produced or directed at least two nationally released productions. We involved a few ‘big names' but we generally were looking for people who were not so well known, who could play by their own rules."

The researchers were able to group the filmmakers' comments into three distinct areas of responsibility: to their subjects, their viewers and their own artistic vision (including the vagaries of production). Per Aufderheide, "The data was all qualitative. We analyzed it for situations, themes, approaches and rationales.

 "We avoided directing [the filmmakers'] thinking, in general," she adds. "But if they needed prompting, we asked about a range of issues, including paying subjects, re-enactment, sound/special effects and re-purposing of images." 

In regard to subjects, the study notes that filmmakers had widely shared notions of "Do no harm" and "Protect the vulnerable," acknowledging that the relationships, which often include economic and social disparities, were "less a friendship and more than a professional relationship." The notion of power differentiations played an enormous role in decision-making, whether it was between filmmaker and subject, or between subjects within the film.

Filmmakers saw their relationship to the viewers as primary as well, albeit more professional and abstract than that of filmmaker and subject. Per the study, filmmakers had "an ethical obligation to deliver accurate and honestly told stories." That being said, the story must be served and filmmakers often "moved ‘the truth' to a higher conceptual level--that of "higher truth." Or, in the words of filmmaker John Grierson, as quoted in the study, a "creative treatment of actuality." 

Most of the respondents discussed the case-by-case nature of ethics in their work and, as such, wrestled with the notion of an actual code, or set of pre-determined standards. "The key is in anchoring a code of best practices in principles, not in situations, of which there is an infinite number," Aufderheide explains. "Of course, every situation is different, but what we learned in this study from filmmakers themselves is that common values were applied to that range of situations." 

When asked if the development of a code is truly possible, filmmaker and study advisor Curran Bernard notes that many established documentary filmmakers already uphold high standards in their work. "Nobody tuning in to [Errol] Morris' The Fog of War expects to watch a balanced presentation of Robert McNamara's career," she notes. "The film signals clearly that the presentation is McNamara's view of his career, whether self-serving or not. 

"It's this kind of transparency that allows for a wide range of creative expression in nonfiction screen storytelling," Curran Bernard maintains. "And just as readers cry foul when nonfiction print storytellers venture too far into fiction [i.e., when a supposedly true memoir turns out to be largely invented], so documentary audiences can and should cry foul when makers cross that line, or when they outright distort or misrepresent information."

Else also responded to our query regarding a set code. Aside from his work as a filmmaker, academic and study advisor, he's been at the frontline of the discussion on ethics for years. "Documentary makers have been fudging, cheating and falsifying evidence for decades and getting away with it," he asserts. "Most of us have done it at one time or another. What's changed is that documentary fraud is getting out of hand, now driven by big money, big awards, big jobs, big egos, big executives.

"We probably do need some ethical baseline that documentary people agree on--something very simple, like a Hippocratic oath, that looks out for both our audience and our subjects," Else continues.

However, he has to ask the question that is probably uppermost on filmmakers minds when the topic is addressed: "How on earth do you write a set of rules that doesn't suck all the life out of documentary?"

Else believes that standards would not prevent filmmakers from being bold and inventive, or lessen the entertainment value. "It's just a hell of a lot harder," he says. "And putting it in a code is harder yet. But it would certainly give us leverage with all the executives clamoring for documentaries that are too good to be true."

In the end, a code of ethics in documentary filmmaking may well be a step that is necessary to ensure the future of public media. As Aufderheide says, "The issue of ethics in an increasingly decentralized world of production is of great relevance to the question of how media for public knowledge and action will be produced. Documentary filmmakers are the canaries in the coal mine."

Access Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work


Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a communications professional with over 18 years of experience launching regional and national public relations campaigns, publicity programs, and marketing plans for profit and nonprofit organizations, including documentary and independent films.