Outside the Frame: Documenting Election ’08

by |

Freelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame, published every other Wednesday.
Amanda HirschIs there any stone left unturned in a modern presidential campaign?

This question was posed by New York Times film critic Janet Maslin in her 1993 review of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker‘s documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. She went on to ask, “When every last whistle-stop and handshake is thoroughly documented in print and on television, can there be anything more for a film maker to find?”

A black and white photo of women holding an Obama sign

Photo by Vincent J. Brown, via Flickr

Today, of course, we document handshakes by the second on the Internet, in all its manifestations: we offer a play-by-play of the handshake via the micro-blogging service Twitter, pick it apart on our blogs, post photographs of it on Flickr and upload video of it to YouTube. If we’re feeling old school, we might even send an email about it, possibly from our phones.

And of course, the most notable difference between the campaign coverage of 1992 and that of 2008 is that we — those formerly known as “the audience” or “readers” — are the ones doing the documenting.

A blog called BallotVox set out this year to highlight the best citizen-generated media related to the election. A team of curators combs the Web daily looking for the best photos, blog posts, video and audio to feature on the BallotVox blog. In aggregate, BallotVox tells the story of how individuals in communities across the nation are responding to the candidates and the issues in election ’08.

Supporters holding up 'Country First' signs at a McCain Rally

Photo by Eleaf, via Flickr

Citizen-generated media is so popular that it is a part of almost every major news outlet’s online election coverage. The New York Times‘ website encourages visitors to “document democracy” in its Polling Place Photo Project, and PBS has partnered with YouTube on a project called Video Your Vote. CNN complements coverage by its own reporters with its robust citizen-generated news project, iReport. C-SPAN’s Debate Hub features not only video of the network’s debate coverage, but also curated highlights of debate coverage from Twitter and blogs. (Certainly, in my house, we can’t watch a debate anymore without Twittering our way through it — once you have an outlet for talking back to the candidates and pundits, it’s hard to go back. Current showed a real understanding of the power of “debate Tweets” with its Hack the Debate feature: as you watched online video of the debate, responses from Twitter users scrolled across the bottom of the screen.)

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mainstream outlets opening their doors to citizen-generated content. So how does the art of documentary storytelling fit into this sea of up-to-the-minute, election-related media? Certainly, in 2008, Americans have access to more words and images about the election than ever before. But it’s the curation of this data that brings it into the realm of documentary — the act of deciding which words to combine with which images to tell a particular story. Sometimes a blogger or news website producer does this curation, but sometimes the curation is DIY: as users choose which blogs to read, which images to view on Flickr, they are patching together their own story about the election — their own documentary.

Does the classically trained documentary filmmaker still contribute something unique to this mix of perspectives? If so, what is that unique contribution? And should the art of documentary filmmaking evolve given the explosion of citizen-generated media?

Imagine you were advising D.A. Pennebaker on a remake of The War Room for 2008. What, if anything, would you advise him to do differently?
Share your thoughts using the comments feature below.

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • ruiyan

    FOREIGNID: 17848
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I love all the citizen journalism that has sprung up, especially around the election, but sometimes I also wonder if it’s just an endless loop for the people who are participating. My question is: do people who don’t contribute/twitter/flickr, etc. ever look at this stuff?

  • http://www.creativedc.org Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 17849
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Such a good point, Ruiyan. I wonder the same thing, but then I think about today’s citizen-generated media as an archive for the future — an aid to those who look back at the times we live in. Imagine a student 20 years from now learning about the election of Barack Obama able to browse Flickr photo galleries and “tweets” from the night he was elected.
    I’m particularly fascinated at how the rise of citizen journalism affects the writing of history – without mainstream media creating one, dominant story, or version, of current events, how do we decide which versions of current events become “history,” for the purposes of teaching history?
    Also, keep in mind that an enormous # of people are publishing Web content these days– I don’t have the most current stats handy, but the “loop” encompasses a good chunk of the population, even if it isn’t all-encompassing.