Skip to content
Support Provided By: Learn more
  • Lesson plan
  • Grades 11-12,
  • Grades 9-10

Honest Truths: Ethics in Documentary Film

Going Further

Is Documentary Journalism?

Is documentary a form of journalism? For filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), the answer is simple: documentary is “journalism plus.” Poitras and fellow filmmaker Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), speaking on this topic at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, argued that filmmakers are like journalists in that they “have to maintain a reputation for truth-seeking,” and require the protections afforded to journalists “in the pursuit of that truth.” They both conceded that documentarians have more freedom in the techniques and points of view they use to interpret the narrative for the audience, but that does not delegitimize their work’s journalistic integrity.

So, is documentary a form of journalism? Why does it matter?

Have participants wade into the debate and explore the issue from a range of perspectives. Introduce the article “Documentaries Aren’t Journalism, and There’s Nothing Wrong with That” by Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post, and the response piece “In Defense of Documentaries as Journalism” by documentary filmmaker June Cross for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Ask participants to analyze the writers’ arguments and further explore the relationship between journalism and documentary filmmaking and the degree to which these disciplines overlap, complement each other and/or are mutually exclusive.

Participants should establish their own positions on this issue and develop persuasive arguments using evidence from their research for support.

Further Reading:

Andrew, Liam. “Controlled Chaos: As Journalism and Documentary Film Converge in Digital, What Lessons Can They Share?” NiemanLab, Oct. 29, 2014,

Cross, June. “In defense of documentaries as journalism.” Columbia Journalism Review, Dec. 3, 2018,

Das, Angelica. “Sundance: Is it Documentary or Journalism?” IndieWire, Feb. 4, 2015,

Greenbaum Kasson, Elisabeth. “The Message Is the Medium: The Difference between Documentarians and Journalists,” Documentary, Oct. 8, 2010,

Hornaday, Ann. “Documentaries Aren’t Journalism, and There’s Nothing Wrong with That,” The Washington Post, Oct. 4, 2018,

Having an Impact

In the past decade, the means of measuring a film's social effect have grown increasingly sophisticated, inspiring numerous studies that measure influence. At the same time, more and more pressure is being placed on filmmakers to prove that their films are having a measurable, real-world impact.

What Is Impact?

In this context, impact is social and cultural change that has been driven by a documentary film and its associated campaign strategy. This can include a perceivable shift in behaviors, beliefs and values within a group, system or community, as well as legislative or policy shifts in a government, organization or institution.

There are obvious benefits for filmmakers who can demonstrate the social value of their films to stakeholders as well as potential funders, but there is also the possibility that these new tools will come at a cost to documentarians, their subjects and their work.

Introduce participants to the article “Films are Films: Measuring the Social Impact of Documentary Film” from Philantopic and have them discuss the following in small groups:

What was Aggregate interested in learning through its survey of filmmakers at the True/False Film Fest?

72 percent of the filmmakers who responded to the survey believed their films could contribute to social change, but 66 percent of filmmakers “said they opposed the idea of using metrics to gauge the impact of their films.” Why? What concerns did filmmakers have about using metrics?

What impact could a reliance on metrics have on which film projects get funded and how stories are told?

56 percent of the filmmakers indicated they had no plans to do outreach to increase the social impact of their films. What were the biggest obstacles these filmmakers cited?

The author reported that Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) said that, although his films deal with important social issues, “he was a filmmaker, not an advocate.” According to James, who should be deciding how his films can be used to make change? What do you think about his response?

One filmmaker responded to the survey by saying, “Films are films. If they deliver a visually interesting experience, spark conversation and inspire people to engage in new ideas, they should be considered a success. Films should not be reduced to advertisements, no matter how worthy the cause. They need to exist on their own terms.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Have participants explore additional resources on this issue and develop and “pitch” a strategy for measuring the social impact of documentary films that also addresses the concerns raised by the filmmakers.

Further Reading:

Byrne Fields, Alison. “Films Are Films: Measuring the Social Impact of Documentary Films,” Philantopic, July 23, 2014,

Campolo, Alex, et al. “Impact Playbook: Best Practices for Understanding the Impact of Media.” Harmony Institute/Bay Area Video Coalition, 2013,

Finneran, Patricia. “Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Storytelling,” HotDocs, 2014,

Napoli, Philip M. “Measuring Media Impact: An Overview of the Field,” Lear Center Media Impact Project, School of Communication & Information Rutgers University, Winter 2014,

Renninger, Bryce J. “How Do We Measure the Impact of Documentaries?: Data from the Puma Impact Award Nominees,” IndieWire, Nov. 12, 2013.

“Web Metrics: Basics for Journalists.” Understanding Media Metrics, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project,

About the authors

Allison Milewski

Allison Milewski has developed media education resources for a range of award-winning filmmakers and national media organizations, including PBS LearningMedia, Independent Television Services (ITVS), Latino Public Broadcasting, HBO Documentaries, and Tribeca Film Institute. She is also the founder of the international media education program,