From a distance documentary filmmaking and journalism can seem to be in contrast with one another from details of content, method of distribution, and the motivation to produce such specific works. But upon closer introspection and study the two endeavors overlap in many ways. If the term documentary is defined as any form of material used to communicate, document, and cover a real-life actual event, era, life story, etc. with factual accounts containing no fictional elements than journalism in many ways follows in that same vein and pursuit to truth. Reporting in the field of journalism is the attempt to document impartially the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a given topic, story or subject matter. Here, both endeavors in documentary filmmaking and journalism are investigative and motivated by matters of the truth. The difference comes between the two endeavors in the amount of content given, the turnaround time in production, the motivation in distributing such content and materials to a given audience of viewers/readers, the degree of neutrality and objectivity, and last (but certainly not least)–the tendency in doing art.
Documentary filmmakers are inspired like that of a philanthropist or an activist bent on tackling a complex issue, raising awareness on a problem for available solution(s), or plainly inspired for social, economic or political change. He or she in their pursuit of constructing a documentary film may be more moved in ways larger than just documenting a storyline or narrating a real-life drama. A meaning to the story and the importance in revealing the motif to the story is of high priority to the documentary filmmaker. This tilts or expands the degree of work in content building, story-telling, and distribution documentary filmmakers accomplish in contrast to journalists. On the other hand journalists are simply reporters out in the field determined to cover a storyline or real-life drama in one avenue of expression that prominently centers on the facts. A journalist’s motto would be: “Facts no commentary.” Journalists—depending on their method and access to distribution—are not exclusively motivated or inspired in the emotional telling of the story or any teaching/preaching moment of a lesson and motif germane to their storyline. Journalists aren’t working to give his or her audience a means to how to think about a given story. They are essentially there to give to his or her audience what to think about.
If journalist expands their area of expertise from print publication for distribution in his or her work into areas like video/film or television broadcast than the lines may blur to how “investigative” a reporter or journalist are in the likes of a documentary filmmaker. In other words, with new and popularly-growing 21st century terms like a “photojournalist” “video journalist”, “multimedia journalism” and “digital communication” a journalist based on his or her motivation and inspiration and the amount/level of content ready for distribution can produce work that can, in fact, be parallel to that of a documentary filmmaker and his or her work. With the advent of rapidly growing digital technology, the popular growth in social media platforms, and the high importance in including the Millennial Generation different methods through digital video has changed the ever-shifting landscape in reporting the news and documenting the “Truth” to such a degree where traditional job descriptions of a journalist and documentary filmmaker no longer hold up. Moreover, in order to keep the attention span of a younger generation groomed in the digital world documentary filmmakers are constantly going back and forth in long-form to short-form content to telling their stories and inspiring their call to raising awareness.
Is a 30-minute investigation special on MSNBC purely a journalist at work or an example of a documentary short? Can the approach in production and editing an ESPN documentary be the same in CNN’s approach to cover a news topic? Are full-length documentaries on PBS Frontline not something a journalist can do especially if the documentaries follow the same method to reporting? Does journalism depend entirely on turnaround time of a given work or a TRT (Total Running Time) of the output of a given work? How much of journalism differs with documentary filmmaking based on the creative control and involvement both the producer and reporter have in their work(s)? Is it important in identifying if not creating a dichotomy between journalism and documentary filmmaking? To answer the latter question—the two endeavors may be argued for contrast to the degree of what motivates a given work to be produced and then eventually distributed. Long-form documentaries—depending on the budget—usually take 2-10 years to complete for the purposes of following a storyline for a thorough, balanced and focused narrative. Separate from producing today’s reality television shows with fast cuts, snippets of soundbites from sit-down, on-camera interviews tightly juxtaposed in the edit of a given episode, and multiple camera angles capturing real life moments—documentary films usually blend with the characters of a story as they follow a subject matter to such an important degree that the camera itself becomes a window to the story—through the cinéma vérité style. This makes documentary filmmaking deeper and more conscious. Journalist in using the video camera moves at a different pace, methodology, and motivation. He or she sees their content as “making air not art”—where timing is vital. A given turnaround time for a broadcast journalist may be in fact a couple of weeks if not days. This method in reporting will then require a different style to the one whose putting together a documentary film. More, importantly a journalist is more pressed with time in execution where the reward is in telling the story at the onset of its problem, popularity, and value. The reward in the documentary filmmaker is documenting a balanced subject matter in raising awareness on a given subject matter and producing film art—which incorporates emotion, feeling, and inspiration that comes with any and all artistic expressions. Journalists are reporters while documentary filmmakers are artists.
Art is a big factor in what documentary filmmakers do which is surprisingly often overlooked by the lay public as well as “experts” in the field. Creativity is what drives the director in telling a strong narrative and documenting a specific issue through film language. Symbolic imagery where the camera catches things, people, and occurrences on camera as a symbolic representations of the style of the story being told is a fundamental aspect to documentary film artists at work. Art takes documentary filmmaking to a different avenue and degree than video journalism where being impartial to story content is an unwritten rule. Art doesn’t necessarily hinder the objectivity and engrossing element to documentaries it only enhances the way the story is told and the way the issue(s) is being addressed. That focus in doing art takes a viewer into a world that they may not have entered otherwise. This essentially makes television or film documentaries much different that long extended news packages done in feature-length time.
However, objectivity and neutrality can always blur in any media platform—especially a media platform motivated in making money. Here, documentary filmmakers are no more immune to this reality than journalists are. One can argue that the notion of 100% objectivity in the sense of a reporter or documentarian who is simply on the outside looking in as a way of finding out what’s going on and highlighting the importance of the story is a mirage. It’ll be better in this sake for either person to come at an angle in telling a story or arguing a point no different than what one might read in a nonfiction book or expository essay. Journalist in comparison to a documentary filmmaker can get away with this more easily if he or she is out in the field in a limited time frame covering a hot topic that needs to go out to air or in publication. There isn’t enough time to spin a story or produce a work that critics and viewers may argue is propaganda within that structure. However, it is important to note that there is growing popularity and constant attention put on pontificating commentary where op-ed columns, editorials, lively pundits, and blogs get weighed upon more than factual reporting and political journalism. Documentary filmmakers exclusively operate in one angle of a given subject matter or narrative however subtly it is portrayed and conveyed. For example, Ken Burns’ historical documentaries on PBS usually affirms the belief in American exceptionalism and deep American national pride—whether it be in an anthology of the Civil War, Jazz music or National Parks or biographical documentaries on Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson. The best documentary filmmakers do in regard to the level of objectivity is to keep it subtle where facts are not construed with commentary, the documentaries are thorough in research and provide valuable information and both sides of an issue or problem are represented and addressed in the film.
Journalism and documentary films overlap in production value, focus on truth, methodology of approach and the gathering of information and research. The two endeavors differ in distribution method, time frame of execution, level and degree of content and the motivation and inspiration in making art and news. The degree in raising awareness and reaching close to the Truth—with the capital T—is what delivers value in both endeavors. Both endeavors can be painstaking in information gathering and research, dangerous in going into the field and working on certain contentious subject matter and issues, and both require much diligence and determination to perform especially in their respective fields that are currently undergoing measures of significant downsizing due to economics and growing technology.