Summit ’18: Blurring the lines between docs and journalism

For docmakers who choose to explore modern-day politics and crises, solidifying the difference between journalism and filmmaking is crucial. In a session titled “To Tell the Truth: The Intersection of Non-Fiction ...
January 31, 2018

For docmakers who choose to explore modern-day politics and crises, solidifying the difference between journalism and filmmaking is crucial.

In a session titled “To Tell the Truth: The Intersection of Non-Fiction and News”, panelists explored how networks and content creators are working to navigate current affairs in an era of changing politics and procedures.

Moderating the panel was Evan Shapiro, principal of eshap.TV. Participants included Amy Entelis, EVP, talent and content development, CNN; Marie Nelson, VP, news and public affairs, PBS, Simon Ostrovsky, investigation editor, Coda Story; and Banks Tarver, co-founder and co-president with Left/Right. Here are a few of their insights:

Pursuing the truth

Left/Right’s Banks Tarver noted that anyone interested in pursuing non-fiction true stories needed to also be interested in searching for the truth.

“Your job is to stay as close to the truth as you’re witnessing,” he said, touching upon his experience producing political docuseries The Circus. Tarver noted that when a doc project becomes more journalistic, producers and directors will have to follow rigorous stanadards set out by the network.

“I do believe that no matter what kind of show yu’re working on, if you get jammed up in any way, just go back to the truth,” he said.

Ostrovsky noted that he lives by an old Russain proverb: Trust, but verify. “You cant publish anyting unless you’re 100% accurate,” he said.

Nelson noted that PBS makes a point to review its editorial standards on a regular basis to ensure proper protocols are enforced. At its most recent review, Nelson said the conversation focused on inclusivity.

“We’re at a moment where there’s a clear realization that there are many truths that have gone untold,” she said. “We have to have some sort of editorial acknowledgment of the biases that exist within our news rooms.”

Risky business

Part of the panel’s discussion involved an examination of the number of entertainment channels looking to take on the role of journalist and docmaker.

“They want the accolades of journalism, but don’t want the risk,” said Ostrovksy. “Some of the entertainment networks are trying to move in because they realize how important journalism is when under threat, but there’s a cost to that — you have to be willing to pull the trigger on things that are more risky. You can’t muckrake without muckraking.”

Entelis noted that for CNN, the risks associated with doc filmmaking weren’t necessarily the same.

“We don’t take risks with the truth,” said Entelis, noting that she is far more concerned with the risks being taken by CNN journalists, which can sometimes be life threatening.

One area where CNN does tend to be a bit more relaxed with coverage is with CNN originals featuring talent such as Anthony Bourdain or Lisa Ling, who push the envelope in a different way.

Entelis said while she considers them to be more point-of-view and opinion than a typical CNN anchor, she received a lot of criticism from journalists when first signing the talent. Audiences, on the other hand, weren’t critical at all.

Entelis says the CNN audience is able to discern the difference between traditional journalism and programs with a bit more creative license. Along the same vein, Entelis said CNN has become much more comfortable using dramatic recreations in its docs because there is very little risk that it will confuse audiences.

What’s next?

Drama will always be a cornerstone for PBS, said Nelson. In the short term, she is responding to pitches where there is a call-and-response action to audiences — something that will encourage audience involvement in a direct way.

One such project, The Great American Read, from Nutopia, will feature America’s 100 best-loved books as chosen by the public. Alongside an accompanying docuseries, the campaign will feature community reading programs, special events and a range of digital and social media initiatives.

“It helps create a life outside of the program,” Nelson said.

Ostrovsky said he would like to see more reporting on how the new administration affects specific people, as opposed to generalized examinations of the nation as a whole. “I want to see the person who’s affected and how [different decisions have changed] their lives,” he said.

Entelis noted that she’s seen a growing interest from audiences to take deeper dives into shared moments in history, while Tarver said he’s pleased to see that the industry is working to create “smarter” content.

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