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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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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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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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Fair Use in Visual Arts: You Be the Judge

artist

Artists, publishers, scholars and curators depend upon fair use in the Visual Arts more than they realize. The Set of Principles in Fair Use for the Visual Arts was created by professionals from different fields within the Visual Arts to unified and express their interpretation of fair use.

Here are examples of uses of copyright material in the Visual Arts. Test your skill and use the Principles to draw your conclusions. Then check your answers at the bottom

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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)

War on Water

Marymount Manhattan College students Billy Shields and Stuart Kiczek re-purpose old copyright black-and-white footage to illustrate a more modern point about how consumers can cut down on expenses by filtering their own tap water at home instead of purchasing bottled water. They use only enough of the third party images as necessary in order to give the rest of the footage the feel of a much older film.

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Fair Use in Journalism: You Be the Judge!

paperboyJournalists depend upon fair use, often without knowing it. The Set of Principles in Fair Use for Journalism was created by journalists to express the consensus of their interpretation of fair use. The Principles feature seven common situations in which journalists can and widely do employ fair use.

Here are examples of uses of copyright material in those seven situations. Test your skill and use the Principles to draw your conclusions. Then check your answers at the bottom.

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Social Justice Documentary: Designing For Impact

Designing For ImpactThe transition from 1.0 to 2.0 opens opportunities for documentarians to fulfill and expand their missions—not only informing individuals and leading public conversation but also building community cohesion and participation. This working paper aims to synthesize current efforts to develop comparable evaluation methods for social issue documentary films. Authored by two researchers who have been jointly documenting the field’s transformation over the past five years, this paper offers a framework for planning and evaluating the impact of these films in a networked media environment.

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Fair Use Teaching Tools

The Center for Media & Social Impact has created a set of teaching tools for professors who are interested in teaching their students about fair use. The tools include powerpoints with lecture notes, guidelines for in-class discussions and exercises, assignments and grading rubrics. We hope you'll find them useful!

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