There is a definition of documentary attributed to John Grierson that I like:
“Documentary is the creative treatment of actuality.”
While cetainly not an end-all-be-all, I think it is a reasonable starting point.
I don’t have as good of a historical definition of Journalism. I did look it up on Wikipedi, which seems as good a place to start as any:
Journalism is a discipline of gathering, writing and reporting news, and more broadly it includes the process of editing and presenting the news articles. Journalism applies to various media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. . . . [Read the entire entry]
Anyway, I’m not entirely sure where I am going with this, but I left in all of the additional Wikipedia links because the except is so inter-contextually dependant, it is almost not even a definition . . .
In this ongoing discussion, sometimes people substitute in “news” for “journalism.” To me, this is odd because I think the answer to the question, “Is Documentary Journalism?” is “Sometimes.” However, if the question becomes “Is Documentary News?” I think the answer should be “Almost Never.”
To the discussion of documentary and journalism, I want to add the not-for-profit communications that I discussed in a previous post. When we make videos for cause related charities – tear-jerker fundraisers and retrospectives, we use every documentary technique in the book. However, I would not call these videos documentary.
I would call them corporate non-profit videos or issue advocacy, but why?
One reason is that the agenda of the organization is paramount, and I think that a true documentary should have an independent voice.
If the best fund-raising video for an AIDS prevention organization leaves out gut-wrenching scenes of poverty and prostitution or scenes of condoms being handed out, so be it. That video has a specific purpose and a specific audience.
Does that mean that a not-for-profit can never make a documentary? No. It depends (IMHO), on the Independence of the voice making the film. Can this become a slippery slope? Of course. Are there grey areas? Of course.
Consider, a comparison between An Inconvenient Truth and The Fog of War, both winners of the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Both are well executed films, but An Inconvenient Truth is much closer to issue advocacy, where The Fog of War has much more of an independent voice.
I don’t think that either one of these hold up as journalism, but I think both are great films . . .
At SMPA, there is a passionate and ongoing intellectual discussion about how documentary should be defined, and specifically whether documentary should be included in the category of journalism.
I believe this to be a complicated question with many aspects to it: philosophical, political, pedagogical, and etc.
Certainly, my own views are colored by the fact that I received a master’s degree in documentary from a journalism college . . .