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The Message Is the Medium: The Difference between Documentarians and Journalists

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

From Sebastian Junger and Tim Hethrington's <em>Restrepo</em>. Photo: Tim Hethrington

What is the place of the documentary journalism within the relentless crush of the 24-hour news cycle? Are there differences in methodology between the filmmaker and the journalist? Does the medium matter (print versus broadcast versus the Internet versus film)? Are there clear lines of demarcation, or does one simply leave off where the other begins? The answers may lie in how the work of journalists and filmmakers, and/or journalists/filmmakers, is perceived beyond their respective communities, as well as how consumers want to receive news. 

With the best journalism programs in the country offering documentary filmmaking as part of their curricula, the medium is beginning to take its rightful place under the news umbrella, but it's not without growing pains. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan's ruling this past May in the case involving Joe Berlinger and his film Crude is a chilling example. The film documents a lawsuit filed by thousands of Ecuadorians against Chevron, stating that its subsidiary, Texaco, had systematically contaminated the land in its three decades of drilling there. While Kaplan acknowledged that Berlinger is indeed a journalist with First Amendment protections, the judge still ruled that Chevron had the right to examine 600 hours of raw footage. 

Chevron claims overt advocacy on Berlinger's part, but within the widely diverse documentary community and its supporters, one would be hard-pressed to compare a film by Berlinger with one by Michael Moore. It should be obvious as well to the uninitiated that Berlinger's nuanced, balanced and impeccably researched work may conjure a long-form Edward R. Morrow or Walter Cronkite, while Moore's buoyant, screeching wheel makes no bones about what side he's on.

While the Court of Appeals recently modified Kaplan's ruling and narrowed the scope of what Chevron could view and use, it's the reality of those hundreds of hours of film that differentiates documentary filmmakers from other journalists in the first place. The situation begs the question: Would Chevron have been so obdurate if Berlinger had written a lengthy series for The Washington Post, or produced and directed news segments for network or cable? 

In a show of solidarity with documentary filmmakers (who were joined by the IDA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America and HBO, among other entities), ABC TV, the Associated Press, CBS TV, the Daily News, the Dow Jones Company, the Gannett Company, the Hearst Corporation, NBC Universal, the New York Times Company and The Washington Post all signed an amicus brief that was filed in support of Berlinger's cause.

"I was glad to see that media companies are now supporting Joe," says filmmaker, blogger and former broadcast news journalist A.J. Schnack. "It's a bigger issue for journalists [broadcast and print] in their day-to-day employment than it is even for us. There are only a handful of cases a year where this is going to impact documentary filmmakers, but it's crucial to journalists in other media. The fact that news organizations are starting to say that they need to weigh in on what's happening with Crude is a positive development. It continues to blur the lines between the disciplines."

Perhaps the best current example of a trans-media, trans-journalistic approach is journalist, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger and photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington's devastating documentary Restrepo. Different angles of this story have been covered via broadcast news, magazine articles, a narrative book, a book of documentary photographs and a documentary film. 

Restrepo may be in a class by itself for its multi-disciplinary, year-long, immersive portrayal of a small combat unit's ongoing battle to build and defend a lonely outpost in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley. Asked about how he and Junger approached the story for each medium, Hetherington says, "I think that what happens is that as the content gets put into different forms, it changes the emphasis slightly and changes the audience. Each form has its own particular needs, and different audiences look at different forms. A young person may be more engaged digitally, but someone who is older may want to go to a photographic exhibition."

 "Different material has to be treated it in different ways," adds Junger. "But I think the demands of narrative are kind of the same. You have to engage people's interest and give them what feels like a narrative arc, and you can't have the moment of greatest tension at the beginning and have it flatline for the rest for the story. It's ancient in all forms of storytelling, regardless of the medium. That's what you have to tap into to be effective."

While narrative is necessary in the telling of any news story at any length, what's gained in viewership often lacks in depth. Hetherington noted the difference between his and Junger's broadcast coverage of the Afghan conflict on ABC's Nightline versus their documentary Restrepo. "You can present something on network news that has clarity but doesn't necessarily have nuance," he explains. "ABC News told us that our audience figures for dispatches from Afghanistan were 22 million. For the first time, a large number of Americans were beginning to see that the war had slipped out of control. That was an effective message, but it didn't have the nuance we were able to imbue into the film."

Documentary producer and director Carl Deal, a former combat and investigative journalist and international broadcast news producer, remembers the particular thrill of creating two-to three-minute news segments as a distinctly different experience from creating a film. "Reporting on the latest activities that are related to the much bigger stories that are unfolding day to day is a blast," Deal maintains. "You're engaged with the content in some respect, but when you're producing news segments, you're also managing satellite feeds and delivery mechanisms and whoever is editing. It's an adrenaline rush, and I think that's a big part of broadcast news. While I enjoyed it immensely, it also fell short for me because it's limited by time and because there are a hundred stories unfolding at once."

When Deal made the switch to documentaries, he took a huge pay cut to do something he believes provides an extremely valuable service that goes far beyond network news and is more rewarding personally. "There's not a lot of support for documentary filmmaking," he admits. "We essentially had a solid two-plus years to make Trouble the Water. If we had a firm commission from someone or a deadline, it would have been a much different film, but we got to tell the story we felt needed to be told because we had the time. I'm not advocating for not funding docs by saying this, but when you have time, you can certainly go deeper."  

Amy Berg, a former segment producer for both network and cable news, directed the 2006 documentary Deliver Us from Evil, which came about as a direct result of her work as a producer at CNN. Berg had an early opportunity to dig into the pathology behind the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal, when Father Oliver O'Grady presented himself to her as an interview subject. Knowing she wouldn't be able to cover O'Grady with sound bites, she left news behind and went to Ireland with a cameraman to fully cover the story for which she had developed a passion.

Berg's lengthy experience as a producer of investigative news segments gives her a unique perspective on the more corporate aspects of creating newscasts. "As a producer at a network, you are beholden to the corporate agenda," says Berg. "This means that if there is an advertiser that might not like the findings of an investigation, you might not be able to get the story green-lit, let alone on the air. Other constraints were the ‘company look'--which does not allow for any creative liberties, as pertaining to storytelling, shooting style and look--and competition with other stations--which results in competing car chases or the latest drug-addled starlet leads--instead of making headlines for having an investigation at the top."

That being said, Berg, like other journalists/filmmakers, sees that the crossover of the two media is the story, as well as the types of people who choose to labor in service of a story.  "Having a journalistic sensibility transcends the constraints, whatever storytelling style one chooses," she maintains. "The personalities tend to be similar: intense, passionate, inquisitive, etc. I often think it is easy to get excited about a vast array of subjects, and when offered the room to tell a good story, the documentary medium is much less intrusive to finding the real story, no matter how long it takes."

With the continuing controversy over Crude and the rapidly transforming news landscape, the question that continues to crop up is: What kind of storytellers get to be called journalists? "We find that asked about bloggers, about documentarians," says Schnack. "Who deserves the right that has been so far afforded to traditional journalism? Documentarians have been on the outside looking in on a lot of those rights--and sometimes we've liked it that way because it's given us more freedom to make artistic choices in our films--so it's an interesting question. As we move forward, are we going to codify the relationship between documentary filmmakers and journalists in specific way, or will it really even be necessary?"

Deal sees concrete advantages to the ever-expanding sources for news, of which documentaries make up one part. "We're all really fortunate right now that there are many more options than there were 10 years ago to get news and information," he points out. "How many 15-year-olds you know have ever watched a news program? It doesn't mean they're not getting good information; it's that they're getting it from a variety of sources." 

While documentaries do allow the filmmaker, and eventually the audience, to become immersed in the events being reported, Deal may have the final word on the subtle and not so subtle differences as to what constitutes a journalist, regardless of the system of delivery. "I don't make big distinctions about what motivates me as a filmmaker as opposed to what motivates me as a journalist, as opposed to what motivates me as a citizen of the world," he maintains. "My interest in doing this is because I have something to say. When journalists have something to say, the medium we're working in is an influence, and we get creative about new ways to say things."


Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Documentary Magazine, Movie City News, Valley Scene Magazine and the LA Reader. She also has over 18 years experience implementing publicity and marketing campaigns and creating materials for a variety of film- and non-film-related organizations.