When Real becomes Reel…Have documentaries replaced print journalism?

Robert Redford believes so. In the run-up to London hosting Redford’s influential Sundance Film Festival next week (with a very documentary-led programme at the O2 Centre), the veteran actor has stated that film has replaced the integrity and respect accorded to publications such as The Washington Post and Time Magazine.

Since the 1980s, documentary features have been steadily gaining in popularity with its apotheosis culminating with the release of Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11, becoming the highest grossing documentary ever in 2004. The popularity of documentary film in the past ten years is partly due to the creation of production companies and distributors such as Tigerlily Films or Dogwoof Films, presenting films that simultaneously entertain audiences whilst investigating serious issues; issues that in the past might have been covered exclusively in investigative journalism. But what else explains the public’s growing fascination with documentary? Is it filling a critical need that journalism is no longer willing or able to meet? Has documentary film sounded the death knell for the quality journalism in the printed press?
With the Leveson Inquiry looking likely to continue well into 2013 and in light of the recent newspaper scandals, can the public ever trust the press again?
In an interview with the BBC, Redford states that the acclaimed film All the President’s Men came at a time when journalism had reached an ‘apex of morality and professionalism’. Sundance, launched in Utah by Redford in 1978, 2 years after the Watergate scandal broke, is a respected fixture on the cinema calendar where indie directors  such as Quentin Tarantino first made their name. Redford goes on to say that newspaper standards are in ‘steep decline’ and that their role has been replaced by the documentary. However with their longer production schedules, do documentaries lend themselves to more in-depth examination? Unlike the press with its pursuit of being the first to break a story, one could say film encourages freer discussion and enables filmmakers to tackle subjects that many governments or large corporations would rather hide? Equally with some national newspapers backed by or forming part of a large corporate conglomerate, many feel journalistic integrity is at odds with the papers’ backers, forcing them to bow to pressures of censorship.
Newspaper supporters would disagree and cite recent examples of ground breaking stories that have come to light exclusively through the press. The Guardian and its determined efforts to highlight News International’s involvement with the phone hacking scandal and corruption within the Metropolitan Police or The Sunday Times revelations regarding the ex-Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas and his boasts of being able to secure access to influential members of the cabinet, in exchange for large donations to the party. With time playing an important role in all these stories, the printed press still has the advantage of being able to uncover a story and publish it quicker than an aspiring director can shout “Lights. Camera. Action” or download the latest version of Final Cut Pro.
Equally, with film’s long chain of command – ranging from writer to director to producer to executive producer (not including distributors and sales agents), can a story remain truly objective and impartial without being subject to varying personal or financial constraints along the way?
In contrast to this, we are now witnessing the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ – stories generated and published through blogs and social media . As the internet and Twitter in particular become increasingly prevalent in our lives, many of us now use newspapers to verify what we have already recently read online. So does that mean that print journalism is to be relegated to a role of fact checker, with online media becoming the reference of choice? Recently tweeted hoaxes – such as the ‘deaths’ of Pedro Almodovar and R&B singer Usher, or the incorrect, ‘leaked’ list of Cannes competition films this year would indicate that we need to be more wary of what we read online.  A significant percentage of Americans still believe President Obama is a Muslim and that John McCain sired an African-American child, as a result of someone posting the stories online in 2008. In the democratic world of online journalism, whilst we can rejoice in the fact that previously ‘unheard’ or marginalised voices have been given agency, we must be aware that we may also be witnessing a rise in bogus stories, rendered ‘legitimate’ by merely being posted live. The role of the investigative journalist, with a curious mind and confident stance may now be more important than ever. With ever more increasing tools at our disposal for breaking news, we need to decide through whom and what we trust, as information reaches us faster than ever before. Navigating a way to successfully uncover the truth, print journalism needs to instruct and inform, allowing the consumer to separate and differentiate the hyperbole from the understated, the subjective from the impartial, the apocryphal from the factual.


~ by cinemalicious on April 20, 2012.

2 Responses to “When Real becomes Reel…Have documentaries replaced print journalism?”

  1. Excellent post! What do you think about the truth value of documentary vs. print journalism?

    • Hi Jess. I think both types of media do remain truthful and are subject to the many pressures in journalism. However documentary film has the ability to probe slightly deeper than print journalism-so there may be slightly more veracity in documentary. However there may be more subjectivity in print journalism.

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