The powerful intersection of documentary and journalism at the local level

by Lauren Pabst | reprinted from Media Impact Funders

As a photojournalist on staff at the Detroit Free Press, Kimberly P. Mitchell was used to doing “quick turn” stories – snapping photos and short videos that encouraged engagement on the Gannett paper’s website and social media.

Photographers are the first on a scene of breaking news, Mitchell said, and as a result must make choices in the moment.

Prioritizing light and composition can lead to capturing a person in an unflattering way at what could be their worst moment, robbing them of dignity amid a tragedy.

“I try to be intentional… because you only get one chance,” Mitchell said.

Since 2013, Mitchell has covered Siwatu-Salama Ra, a Michigan environmental and racial justice activist, who in 2018 was forced to give birth in prison because the state failed to apply its “Stand Your Ground” law to her case, documenting her fight for exoneration, and reunion with family through evocative images.

And when she became co-director of “I Believe in Our Power,” a forthcoming feature-length documentary about Ra, Mitchell began to radically rethink her role as a local journalist. As a Black woman and a young mother, Mitchell related to Ra’s experience deeply, understanding how she too could have faced the same circumstances.

So much so that Ra became co-director of the film.

“It has really made me think how to tell someone’s story,” Mitchell said. “Because I realized, her story was me.”

For a while now, many journalists have been prioritizing an ideal of “transparency” rather than “objectivity”—allowing the public to follow along with the step-by-step reporting process, verification of facts, and presentation of evidence as the key to gaining trust, rather than claiming a contested idea of neutral “objectivity.” Often, transparency includes the acknowledgement of the journalist’s positionality to the story. The idea that every human brings a lived experience and an embodied perspective to every social issue is increasingly able to exist alongside coverage that is no less fact-based and rigorous.

Documentary films and journalism are usually regarded as parallel disciplines with their own approaches and standards. Some documentaries are investigative journalism by nature (notably the PBS series “FRONTLINE,” celebrating its 40th year). Many more apply journalistic approaches.

And documentary films necessarily have, as a filmed medium (and as the longest-running independent documentary showcase on public television would say), a P.O.V.

Local news organizations have always relied on visual storytelling. And at a time when the public mistrusts so-called mainstream news sources more than ever, studies show that they are more likely to trust their local news outlets.

And documentaries are often local. On June 1, at the Media Impact Forum at KQED in San Francisco, acclaimed filmmaker Peter Nicks discussed how his documentaries The Waiting Room (2014); The Force (2018); and Homeroom (2021) explore public health care, public safety, and public education in Oakland California. The idea came when filming “The Waiting Room,” when Nicks and his team met a 14-year-old who had been shot outside her middle school.

“I started to think about her story and how it connected to the criminal justice system, to the education system and if we could sustain an engagement and tell that grand narrative there would be a powerful insight that we could draw from that,” Nicks told Chi-hui Yang of the Ford Foundation | JustFilms, and Carrie Lozano, currently Director of Documentary Film and Artists Programs at the Sundance Institute who on Aug. 7 will become the new Executive Director of ITVS, the largest funder of independent documentary films for public television.

Lozano reflected on the volatility of the documentary field, driven by the often entertainment-focused curatorial choices of many streaming platforms.

“There is no question that the landscape is entirely different,” she said. “And what that has done… is raised the visibility and increased the audience appetite for nonfiction.”

As news consumers increasingly seek out streaming nonfiction video as part of their information (and entertainment) diets, is there potential for news organizations—especially local news outlets—to experiment much more with visual storytelling and documentary approaches? And for documentary filmmakers to apply their work in local news contexts?

Across the country, they already are.

Evan Mascagni is an independent documentary filmmaker from Kentucky. In 2021, he was one of three filmmakers who collaborated with ITVS and the Louisville Courier Journal on a series of three short documentaries that explicated and explored different aspects of the state’s Persistent Felony Offender (PFO) Law, a statute that has long been on the state’s books.

Inspired by data from the Vera Institute, ITVS and the Courier Journal, the paper of record in the largest city in Kentucky, teamed up to explore the human impacts of the PFO Law. The law mandates harsher punishments for those who are charged with repeat felonies, in a state where mere possession of drugs can be considered a felony.

Mascagni’s short, “Persistent,” tells the story of Marcus Jackson, the leader of the ACLU Kentucky’s campaign to overturn the PFO Law. Marcus becomes the correspondent for the film, as he interviews his father, who was also incarcerated under the PFO Law, his mother, and his own children to discuss the impact of his over-incarceration on their family over generations.

Marcus Jackson, center, visits with family members at a park in Jackson’s hometown of Paducah, Ky. Jackson is the organizing coordinator with ACLU of Kentucky and is leading an effort to reform Persistent Felony Offender (PFO) laws in Kentucky. Photo by Louisville Courier-Journal

Near the end of the 17-minute doc, available to watch now on YouTube for free, a patch of sunlight catches Marcus in his crisp white button-down as he descends a grand marble staircase in the Kentucky State House, preoccupied with something on his phone, after introducing his bill to State Rep. Nima Kulkarni. In one shot, we see illustrated the weight of history, as heavy as all that marble.

“’I often think of this quote,” Marcus says, over shots of him mowing his own lawn (a task that was punishment in prison but that he now relishes). “’If you want to understand patience, watch a tree grow. But if you want to understand persistence, observe the grass.’ Because it keeps coming back. They label me a persistent offender. Can’t do anything about that now. But what I can do is show them what it means to be persistent. I won’t stop until this horrible law goes away and stops destroying families.”

Like many of the best documentaries, “Persistent” illustrates not only the human impacts of policies, but it is clear from the film that the people whose stories are being told have agency in the telling.

It’s an idea at the heart of the Documentary Accountability Working Group (DAWG), which launched a new framework, “From Reflection to Release: Framework for Values, Ethics, and Accountability in Nonfiction Filmmaking,” in September 2022.

Made up of leadership from ITVS, Working Films, Youth FX, Center for Media and Social Impact at AU, Color Congress, and the Muslim Wellness Foundation, DAWG puts a framework around an idea at the heart of the most ethical films: First, doing no harm. DAWG interviewed more than 100 filmmakers and 40 documentary film subjects to inform the creation of its framework, which advocates for a new phase of film creation: Reflection. This phase—which would seek to answer questions such as, “Why am I the right person to tell this story?”, “How can I protect the vulnerable people I would need to film?” and “How can I avoid re-traumatizing audiences?”—would come before Research & Development, Production, Post-Production, Distribution, and Impact.

Of course, it is not always appropriate to share power—especially when as is often the case—the person at the heart of the story has more institutional power than the reporter. But in many cases, journalists and documentarians are telling stories of vulnerable people and, DAWG argues, should factor in a power analysis to minimize harm from the beginning.

Though daily news differs from long-form documentary and has different practical considerations, similar questions of accountability to and power sharing with the “subjects” of stories are also being asked by community focused journalists and journalism organizations.

Sadly, infuriatingly, the histories of both documentary and journalism are full of examples of the stories told contributing to greater harm. But at local news organizations, can similar principles of care be incorporated alongside journalistic inquiry into a holistic storytelling approach?

Back at the Detroit Free Press, these ideas are gaining traction.

Mitchell describes her first feature documentary, I Believe in Our Power, currently in production, as an “unorthodox partnership between the Detroit Free Press, Ra Films (LLC), and Complex Movements, which came together through a process developed by the Detroit Narrative Agency to create a legal framework for collective decision making.” This work has now grown into its own initiative, REIMAGINE (Legal Framework for Community Accountable Media Making). The resulting agreement stands in stark contrast to many conventional documentary production processes. Siwatu-Salama Ra, the film’s lead protagonist, also serves as co-director with Mitchell alongside Producer ill invincible and Editor Brian Kaufman, a videographer on staff at the Free Press. Ra will shape the film with an eye toward accountability and healing justice, while Mitchell will bring journalistic accuracy and ethical storytelling. Built into the resource generating strategy is mental health support to Ra and her immediate family.

With the opportunity to participate in the Cucalorus Film Festival’s Works-in-Progress lab and mentorship from filmmakers Byron Hurt and Natalie Bullock Brown (also a leader of DAWG), which they call “a safe space for filmmakers of color” the team has developed a social impact strategy. It includes a curriculum for media organizations to recreate this kind of partnership between protagonist and journalist to, as Mitchell says, “create a fuller understanding of complex issues like the prison industrial complex.”

Documentaries are by nature different from daily news coverage. They can often go deeper and use personal stories to help change hearts as well as minds.

The PFO Law series between ITVS and the Courier Journal contributed to an informational climate in which the bill to end the law gained bipartisan support. Jackson and many others continue to fight for its passage in a particularly dicey and divided political climate.

These experiments from Detroit and Kentucky are not the only ones. In Philadelphia, Louis Massiah, founder of Scribe Video Center, has organized more than 20 community media centers around the United States to create an op-ed wire service of sorts for mainstream TV news that would feature the insights of the people most impacted by any given issue. And “FRONTLINE” continues to provide editorial support, as well as advice about visual approaches, through its Local Journalism Initiative, currently in South Carolina, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas.

And there are important new infrastructures available for local documentary filmmakers. Also at the Media Impact Forum, Sahar Driver, co-director of Color Congress, presented that organization’s work to infuse resources to the more than 90 people of color-led and -serving organizations in every region of the United States.

“These organizations, which are rooted in geographic communities and identity communities, are helping to nurture the voices of storytellers from these communities. They’re reflecting back and deepening community engagement with their histories and their present realities,” Driver told the Media Impact Forum attendees, a mix of media makers and funders.

The question we’re asking at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where we have long supported both journalism and documentary, is how can we encourage more interchange between these fields, and help both to realize their potential for narrative change?

At a moment of crisis for trust in news, we believe understanding visual journalism experiments in local contexts, implemented with the ethical values central to the independent documentary field, could offer a piece of the puzzle.