Moment of Truth

Concerns around factual accuracy aren't new, but with recent high-profile cases of journalistic error, docs have come under scrutiny.
May 1, 2004

Concerns around factual accuracy aren’t new, but with recent high-profile cases of journalistic error, docs have come under scrutiny.

Last November, The History Channel aired The Guilty Men. Part of the series The Men Who Killed Kennedy, it presented the theory that Lyndon B. Johnson played a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After complaints from viewers, as well as Johnson’s family and colleagues, the channel issued an apology, and aired The Guilty Men: A Historical Review, in which historians evaluated the assertions of the original show. The History Channel acknowledged the allegations were only speculative and that the show should not have aired as fact.

Last summer’s Nefertiti Resurrected, which aired on Discovery Channel US, about the discovery of the ancient Egyptian Queen, was met with debate by the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, who dismissed the find as theory rather than fact. In February, alleged victims of abuse at the hands of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, featured in Capturing the Friedmans, claimed that filmmaker Andrew Jarecki withheld or distorted significant info about their cases. And, 11,443 people have signed an online petition to protest the validity of The Revolution Will Not be Televised (produced in association with nps/cobo, rte, bbc, zdf/arte and yle) which was filmed during a presidential coup in Venezuela.

Accuracy is an ongoing issue for docs, but with increased pressure to up the entertainment value, what’s truly at stake for the genre?

Nick Fraser, CE, BBC ‘Storyville’, London

‘The BBC lives or dies by its ability to tell the truth, so I have to, whether I like to or not. And I do like to take a quite rigorous construction of telling the truth. It’s not enough to say that a doc is entertaining or perceptive; it has to be truthful as well, and if truthfulness is in collision with entertainment value, then you have to choose truthfulness. Inherent in the definition of a documentary is the notion that it’s got to tell the truth. Otherwise, what’s the point of a documentary?

The notion that TV is primarily there for entertainment means that the truth party is in the minority at the moment. The entertainment factor in TV has just gone higher and higher. In a way, docs have sort of made this pact with entertainment: we promise to be more entertaining. The downside is that truth is often not entertaining, so the temptation is always to make things more palatable, to make things less truthful.

When a doc comes in, you can’t be sure that everything in it is correct. I have to rely on my training as a journalist; my job is to make sure this stuff stacks up. [A doc] can have points of view, but it has to be based on truth. It can’t miss huge amounts of story. We don’t have a team of fact-checkers. We tell the filmmakers that we rely on their accuracy and good faith. We have to query their scripts and facts in the film ourselves. It is very important for us.

I think with docs internationally, you’re confronted with the question: what is a documentary for? If it’s not there to be truthful, but to entertain, that is problematic.’

Mark Starowicz, exec producer, CBC doc unit, Toronto

‘In documentary, the competition for viewers has turned up the volume on the pitch-and-sell-your-piece part, and that tends to push you towards exaggeration and simplification. I think there’s a general tabloidization going on in the TV industry.

There’s a bunch of forces entering the genre – through Taxicab Confessions, or through reality. The non-fiction form has been enlarged to include non-fiction circuses and that’s creating a strain at the edges of documentary. People are going to get blurred about reality when the entertainment side appropriates the grammar of documentary.

With Canada: a People’s History, we said, ‘Every person you’ll see in this doc existed, every single word they said was spoken or written by them – nothing is invented.’ Truth is stranger than fiction, and for it to have any dramatic value or any human empathy, it has to be true, otherwise, you don’t say ‘wow.’ That ‘trust me’ line is the cornerstone of the doc industry. It’s that glimpse of reality that thrills us, and I worry when other people come in, and for circus reasons, steal the credibility that thousands have built up. For them to come along and use our forms, our camera styles, our accumulated goodwill in the culture with the audience, is appropriation. It’s theft.’

What are you doing at the network level to address accuracy?

Louis Wiley, exec editor, WGBH/Frontline, Boston, US

‘Accuracy is such a critical ingredient in maintaining your credibility. If you are inaccurate, it leads to questions about your credibility on large points. I’ve always told producers that it’s very important that names be spelled right, places be identified correctly. It starts with these small matters, precise questions about dates and titles and then it leads to larger issues.

We’ve had an informal practice here, which is now being codified in the Journalistic Standards and Practices, that all of our producers have a fact-checking process. They have to check every line of narration and every picture for the accuracy of any factual assertion. That’s just good professional practice and policy. Anybody who is doing non-fiction programming should be paying attention to how they check their facts.’

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