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Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power

dangerous_documentaries_coverMany of the issues most important for our society to recognize and discuss are also those that powerful people or institutions don’t want made public. Non-fiction filmmakers who tell truth to power often face aggressive attack from powerful individuals, governmental bodies, businesses and associations. How are independent makers, often working outside of media institutions for long periods of time, and sometimes untrained in journalistic practices, working with this reality? What are the risks, and can they be mitigated to encourage more and better expression on the important issues of the day? 

This report finds that the risks of doing such work are well-established in the investigative journalism community, but not always well known in the documentary film community. It documents attitudes, practices, and problems. It then addresses how makers of such work may best mitigate known risks, and what kinds of support may help them more than they are today. It finally suggests next steps to expand opportunities and share existing knowledge about how to lower risks while telling truth to power. 

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Dangerous Documentaries: Resources for Filmmakers

Many of the issues most important for our society to recognize and discuss are also those that powerful people or institutions don’t want made public. Non-fiction filmmakers who tell truth to power often face aggressive attack from powerful individuals, governmental bodies, businesses and associations. 

This collection of resources below is intended to support filmmakers facing such attacks and promote investigative work that combines the best practices of documentary and journalism. The collection was created as part of the Center for Media & Social Impact's research project and report "Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power," funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

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Entertainment, Storytelling & Social Change in Global Poverty

Entertainment, Storytelling & Social Change in Global PovertyThe purpose of this research is to understand how audiences are engaged, motivated and changed – in terms of their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors about global health and poverty – as a result of watching an hour-long comedic travelogue documentary TV program about the topic, "Stand Up Planet." Additionally, via a quasi-experimental design, we aim to discover how perceptions of global poverty and health may be different for viewers who watch entertaining, light-hearted storytelling that balances facts with comedy ("Stand Up Planet"), compared with a sober journalistic format ("The End Game"). Both hour-long documentaries focus on global poverty and health in poor corners of the world, both aired on TV in the United States in 2014, and both include facts and “real people” in the areas they profile. The primary difference between the two is the specific focus on particular global development challenges – sanitation and HIV for "Stand Up Planet," and malaria for "The End Game" – as well as their editorial tone and format. 

Our aim is to learn how audiences engage with issues related to global poverty and health specifically, but also to provide broader insights for the individuals and organizations that endeavor to create social change through storytelling. 

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Fair Use in Visual Arts: Frequently Asked Questions

The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use was created with and for the visual arts community. Copyright protects artworks of all kinds, audiovisual materials, photographs, and texts (among other things) against unauthorized use by others, but it is subject to a number of exceptions designed to assure space for future creativity. Of these, fair use is the most important and the most flexible. This FAQ can help you decide whether and how to apply fair use to your visual arts work.

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INFOGRAPHIC: Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts

infograph1Want a clear, easy way to show the main points of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts? Here's an infographic, which  you can imbed on your website, print out, or upload to Twitter and Facebook. The infographic is freely available as a full-size PDF, an embeddable JPG for blogs and website, and a print-ready 8.5” x 11” PDF to print and hand out atevents.

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Field Report: Land of Opportunity

lop5The Land of Opportunity transmedia documentary project encompasses a feature film and interactive web platform designed to foster dialogue and social impact around community (re)building in the face of crisis/disaster. In 2006, Director/ Producer Luisa Dantas started filming for the documentary (“Land of Opportunity”), which follows several individuals through the early years of postKatrina rebuilding in New Orleans. In 2012, the project evolved to include the interactive web platform (LandofOpportunity), which combines a rich archive of 1 post-Katrina reconstruction stories with multimedia content from several other communities across the country. The interactive narratives featured on the platform explore a range of places and partners facing redevelopment issues. This field report is a primer on the process of creating an interactive web-based experience after releasing a traditional documentary, as part of a greater set of tools for public engagement. This report was compiled using a series of interviews that spanned the length of production and launch of the platform, some of which were used in shorter blog posts published by the Center for Media & Social Impact. Center staff and graduate fellows conducted interviews and the LandofOpportunity production team provided research, consultation and coordination.

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Assessing the Social Impact of Issues-Focused Documentaries: Research Methods & Future Considerations

The resources available to assess the social impact of issues-focused documentaries have increased during the digital era. And yet, making the decision about which research methods (and tools) to use to examine the social impact of storytelling may be a challenge within the ecosystem of creators and strategists working in the pursuit of storytelling for social change. At the same time, research methods from social science – in the fields of communication/media studies, social psychology, political science and sociology – have been tested in decades of published studies. This white paper provides a breakdown of social science and market research methods to clearly explain the benefits and limitations of using each one to understand issue-focused documentaries in particular. We examine a group of branded media-impact tools now available, dissecting their underlying research approaches and the ways in which they work optimally to help tell a story about the social impact of storytelling.

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Go to: Assessing the Social Impact of Issues-Focused Documentaries (PDF)

Documentarians, Fair Use and Best Practices

In the summer of 2014, Center Directer Patricia Aufderheide and Rutgers University's Aram Sinnreich conducted a national survey of 489 documentary filmmakers. The preliminary results show that a great majority of documentary filmmakers understand fair use, find it valuable in their work, and have had no trouble with acceptance by broadcasters, lawyers or insurers.

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INFOGRAPHIC: Can I Employ Fair Use In My Documentary?

A survey of 489 documentary filmmakers by Patricia Aufderheide and Aram Sinnreich found that since the 2005 creation of the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, the film industry has increasingly embraced fair useToday, attitudes about fair use are positive, strongly associated with free expression and creative opportunity. Most documentary filmmakers understand fair use, find it valuable in their work, and have had no trouble with acceptance by broadcasters, lawyers or insurers. 

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Copyright, Permissions and Fair Use in the Visual Arts Communities: An Issues Report

CAA Fair Use in Visual ArtsThe visual arts communities of practice share a common problem in their confusion about and misunderstanding of the nature of copyright law and the availability of fair use. Their work is constrained and censored, most powerfully by themselves, because of that confusion and the resulting fear and anxiety. More and better work can be done through a fuller understanding of copyright, without impairing the ability of artists and art historians to receive credit for, maintain appropriate control over, and monetize their work.

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