Sat in on a class today discussing ethics in documentary filmmaking and was reminded twice that, as the cliche’ goes, nothing is as it seems. First was a five-minute excerpt from a NOVA special about a firefight and rescue operation in Kentucky in the 90s. It all seemed very intense and scary and educational and all that. Afterwards we were asked what the problem with it was. No one had any idea. Turns out that all of the rescue scenes of a downed firefighter with a crushed pelvis being pulled out of the area by a brave team and a helicopter were totally faked. Staged. By NOVA. One of the most respected long-form documentary/science shows running.
The second example was the opening sequence to Ken Burn’s “The Civil War,” which revolves around the person who signed the papers to put an end to the war (neither Grant nor Lee, I forget his name). They showed old pictures of his house, they showed him, they showed the people who were there. Except that they didn’t. Burns couldn’t find any pictures of this guy, or his house, or anything. So he found pictures that would convey the mood and intentionally misled the viewer into thinking he was seeing accurate historical photographs.
Burns is one of the most respected historical documentarians we’ve got. If we can’t count on Ken Burns or Nova to give us the truth even when in documentary mode (where the journalist ostensibly has the time and resources to do it right), are there any journalists or institutions we can count on for the truth? How would we know? Even in the context of a class on the very subject, we didn’t have enough context to know we were watching something tantamount to lies. How much worse is it for the general public watching your average evening magazine or Fox News or CNN coverage of event XyZ?