Documentaries, Journalism And The Future Of Reality-Based Storytelling

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

October 13, 2014

What do a documentary and a newsreel have in common? They both look at the world critically. So what keeps them apart? Journalists will tell you that documentaries are partial and re-enacted and documentary makers will tell you that newsreels are quick and superficial. “These two worlds share so much in terms of what their agenda is but they pass by each other like ships in the night”, says MIT Professor William Ulricchio.


William Ulricchio

Today, though, multi-media storytelling, where narrative journalism, photography, documentary and visualizations all blend in to tell a story in a new and compelling manner is breaking down the traditional boundary between the two fields. How this has occurred and what its implications could be, were the main point of a discussion titled “Documentaries, journalism and the future of reality-based storytelling”, hosted by MIT’s Center for Comparative Media Studies on October 9th. As I’m very interested in learning about multi-media during my fellowship, I found the event useful and insightful.

According Ulricchio, one of the reasons why the dividing line between documentary making and journalism is becoming increasingly blurred is the way in which audiences have changed in recent years. “Over the long haul, the idea of who’s out there in the seats has changed considerably. Sometimes it’s the masses, other times it’s consumers, other times it’s collaborators. Who’s their audience? What do they see their mission to be? This is a moment that allows us to reconfigure these two categories, especially since both face challenges in terms of sustainability”, says Ulricchio.

The Guardian’s multi-media editor, Francesca Panetta, talked about how long-form feature writing can be seamlessly weaved into a multi-media piece. “Sometimes I receive a piece and I think: ‘this sounds like a documentary already’. They all sit quite happily together”, says Panetta.


Francesca Panetta

Panetta describes multimedia as “a new wild west type of area” that is still very experimental even in media outlets such as The Guardian that are regarded as pioneers in this field. “When I came from the BBC I started making podcasts that nobody listened to; I commissioned the pieces myself”, she says.

But how do you decide when a story is best told in an interactive format? According to Frontline deputy executive producer Raney Aronson, it is sometimes difficult to make that judgment and “having flexibility is key”. However, she made it clear that no matter what format you choose, the same standards of accuracy and rigor will always apply.


Raney Aronson

To illustrate the point, Aronson talked about the challenges involved when using footage sent from conflict zones, such as Nigeria. In order to verify the authenticity of the material, says Aronson, it needs to be sent by different eyewitnesses and filmed from different angles. “We ran a piece about searching for Boko Haram and we had footage that seemed very visceral, very real, and we were able to verify three or four incidents but in other cases it turned out that Boko Haram were dressing up as the Nigerian military”, says Aronson.

Panetta added that rigor doesn’t just mean fact-checking but also “creative rigor”, such as using hyperlinks when they really add something to the piece and not just “throwing them in because you can”.

New York Times Op-Docs editor Jason Spingarn-Koff explained how interactivity can “deepen the emotional experience” but warned about the dangers of “manipulating viewers and forcing them into certain feelings”.


Jason Spingarn-Koff

According to Spingarn-Koff, transparency is the key issue. Basically, you can do anything as long as you clearly explain to the audience what you’re doing. You can mix fiction and non-fiction, for example, but you need to clearly state to viewers/readers that that’s what you’re doing and why you chose to use that format.

One of the great things about multi-media, says Panetta, is to combine the emotion elicited by long-form writing or by documentaries with data-driven visualizations, which on their own, can be dry and unattractive.

As Canadian documentary director Katerina Cizek puts it, it’s all about learning “how to spacify storytelling and how to storyfy an image”.


Katerina Cizek

This discussion gave me a lot to think about. Here are the links to some of my favorite multi-media projects and the reasons why I think they’re amazing:

Guns Periscopic: A data visualization project that illustrates the impact of gun violence in the US. In 2013, a total of 11,419 people were killed, a total of 502,025 stolen years. As the numbers race forward, the viewer is confronted, in a very graphic way, with the magnitude of this senseless loss of life. Each of the strands that appears on the screen is a precious human life. Click on these strands and the visualization will tell you the name of that person and how he/she died, as well as well as the age that he/she might have lived to. This is data with a human face.

Bosawas under threat: This piece was published by Nicaraguan magazine El Confidencial as part of the ICFJ’s Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas. A compelling narrative, stunning photography, illustrative maps and a series of recorded interviews bring to life the destruction of the Bosawas Biosphere in Nicaragua and how indigenous livelihoods are under threat. Central America has so many amazing stories that need to be told and this piece illustrates how multi-media can do this.

Myths about femicide: Another project that was published as part of the ICFJ’s Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas. I had the privilege of working with the team of very talented reporters who produced this work as their local editor in Guatemala. The six months that it took to produce this work were definitely worth it. The piece seeks to debunk the myths about femicide in Central America by combining data, interviews and visualizations.

The Guardian’s public spending app: Knowing how politicians are spending our money is crucial but the words “budget” and “spending” make readers yawn. This app is a perfect example of how a great visualization can help people understand who’s getting the largest piece of cake and why it matters.