Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Doc Soup: In Search of the Honest Truth About Docs and Ethics

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Leave it to The New York Times to fail to get the facts straight.

Or, rather, to presume that there’s such a thing as an immutable fact and that its journalists have the rarified ability to relay facts without prejudice. No documentary filmmaker worth his or her salt would ever make such a claim, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Last week, the Times published an article about a panel that was held at the Toronto Film Festival, which discussed a new report from the Center for Social Media at American University, titled “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.”

Center for Social Media: Honest Truths Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their WorkThe writer, Michael Cieply, asserts that the report, which is based on interviews with some 50 doc filmmakers, “came to some conclusions that could shock those schooled in conventional journalistic ethics.”

Uh-oh. Cieply says that doc directors work “under ad hoc ethical codes,” and reports that one director admitted to letting his crew break the legs of rabbits in order to get better shots of animals being hunted.
Eeek! Of course, this is all written in the context of Michael Moore‘s new film Capitalism: A Love Story — and everyone knows that Moore is culprit Number One when it comes to doc filmmakers who tweak the truth to fit their agenda.

OK, no question — each and every documentary filmmaker must contend with the fact that they can’t represent unmediated truths in their films. That’s why it’s called representation. An Oscar-nominated documentarian once regaled me with stories of how turning on a camera instantly twists the truth. For example, he said, suppose person A and person B are having a conversation. If he was using one camera to shoot person A, he could easily then turn the camera on person B, who would then feel compelled to respond, or “perform,” for the camera.

But does that warrant Cieply’s claim that, “The craft tends to see itself as being bound less by the need to be accurate and fair than by a desire for social justice, to level the playing field between those who are perceived to be powerful and those who are not.” (Disclosure: I should mention here that I once edited a story written by Cieply when I worked for Premiere magazine; and though I’m not letting that consciously influence my opinion of his piece, I can’t speak to its impact on my subconscious.)

I called up POV’s Executive Director Simon Kilmurry, who told me that he valued the Center for Social Media’s report, but found the Times article “hyperbolic and pretty simplistic.” His primary concern was how the piece “paints the industry with a very wide brush,” he says.

Is it really fair to group a comedic polemic by Michael Moore, an historical retelling by Ken Burns, a trippy essay by Errol Morris, and, say, a POV doc? Of course not. (And I’m not sure how a “craft” can actively “see” itself, anyway.) Kilmurry also tells me that POV goes through an extensive vetting process to make sure that the facts aren’t distorted in its films. There’s a whole errors and omissions insurance review, in which, Kilmurry says, “We are checking for what we feel are legal issues, such as libel, but also material misrepresentations.”

I also spoke to Critical Condition (POV 2008) doc director Roger Weisberg, who calmed me down about the Times article. “It raises many questions,” he says. “Many of us do cross the line. But I try not to. And I try to ascertain where that line is.”
For instance, a director fudging reaction shots because he only has one camera isn’t crossing that line, according to Weisberg. “In that case, I don’t think you are deceiving the public in a substantive way,” he says. (Whereas, I think we can all agree, breaking rabbits’ legs does.)

“Even when we don’t agree with them,” Weisberg adds, “we try so hard to do justice to the issues and the participants in the film.”

The same, I’d say, is true for any reputable documentary filmmaker. Or really, even a newspaperman schooled in journalistic ethics.

“There’s a slippery slope that exists in any medium, whether you’re filming something or writing about it,” Kilmurry says. “And The New York Times is on that same slippery slope. All of these media are limited.”

Read the executive summary or download the full report, “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work.”

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • http://centerforsocialmedia.org Pat Aufderheide

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    Thank you so much for your thoughtful foray into this important issue! I hope that you get a chance to read and comment on the report., Honest Truths, as well! It’s the Center for Social Media’s distillation of 45 interviews with documentarians, a reflection of the concerns that documentarians themselves have. Since it came out I have been struck both with the self-righteousness of many journalists and the defensiveness of documentarians. Many documentarians seem to want to avoid the question of defining their ethical standards altogether, even though the report clearly shows commonly held ethical beliefs. I hope that the report can generate thoughtful reflection.