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Viewpoint: Building the foundation

Bunim/Murray Productions chairman Jonathan Murray (pictured) explains how his $6.7 million gift to the University of Missouri will establish a documentary journalism program that will teach young media professionals to value both skills and ethics.
June 17, 2014

A gift of US$6.7 million from Bunim/Murray Productions chairman Jonathan Murray (pictured) to his alma mater, the University of Missouri, is enabling its journalism school to form a documentary journalism program. Here, Murray – who worked in television news and documentary prior to founding his production company – explains how he hopes the program will help journalists acquire the foundational skills and ethical understanding to enrich the media and entertainment landscape.

When I was a junior at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, one of my assignments was to cover an annual ping pong-ball drop that was a school tradition.

I wanted to tell the story in the style of American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who covered the bombing of London in the Second World War, but I knew I wasn’t as eloquent, so I first taped the sounds of students reacting to the ball drop, and later recorded my narration, suggesting I’d spoken extemporaneously as the event unfolded.

When I played it for my journalism professor, bragging about my technique, he reacted in horror, explaining that I was deceiving the listener by letting them think I was actually describing the ball drop as it happened.

The experience may have been an early indication that I would take a divergent path from journalism, but my television career has taught me that regardless of whether you’re producing The Real World or the evening news, your eventual aim is to tell a good, compelling and – most important – an ethically sound story.

I’ve always felt I owed a great debt to the University of Missouri for the foundational storytelling skills I learned there – not to mention the ethics lessons – and it made sense to contribute something that would enable the school to fill a current void in its curriculum by adding an interest area in documentary journalism, a field that is essential to our discussion of important issues in the U.S. but rarely funded.

When the program kicks off in the fall of 2015, it will offer bachelors of journalism and Master of Arts degrees, and fund research in the field of documentary journalism.

Students will have the chance to examine the theory behind the medium, study the history of the field, analyze the great documentaries and grasp the different forms of storytelling available to them. They’ll then combine that knowledge with practical experience, making their own short documentaries and getting involved in internships with documentarians.

But regardless of whether students use the skills they learn at Missouri to go off and make great documentaries that are going to change the world, or work for Discovery Channel making non-fiction series, that foundation will give them something unique that will set them apart in the marketplace.

The program will instill a comprehensive understanding of ethics, which is a crucial part of production in the entertainment industry, and an area I often wish people working in reality television understood a little better.

In our field, everything comes in shades of gray, and it’s important to be cognizant of what those shades are so you can contemplate the choices you’re making and not just blindly do them. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual producer and network as to where they draw the line on what they consider acceptable or not. I have my own personal standards which I uphold in what we do at Bunim/Murray.

I raise those questions with my showrunners as we go into each project, but I worry that people who haven’t had the same training are making choices that are detrimental to the genre.

As such, there must always be a debate around the fine points of what happens when you get out into the field and what choices you have to make on-site and back in the edit room. Ethics should be thoroughly discussed so that when a student graduates and begins their career, they have a foundation they can apply as they start to do their own work.

We are in the midst of a very exciting time for documentary and reality producers because there are a wealth of opportunities and platforms to tell stories. The program at Missouri will primarily teach long-form documentary storytelling, but it will equip students to go in any direction they desire.

Ultimately, journalism school made me a better reality producer, and I hope the documentary journalism program at Missouri will do the same for the next generation of storytellers, wherever they choose to apply their talents.

  • As told to Manori Ravindran
  • This viewpoint first appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
The May/June 2014 issue of Realscreen magazine
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