The Big "O" - Finding Fairness in Documentaries

Originally published at DocJournalism.com

There are two terms often discussed in the journalism world when any controversial story comes to a head: objectivity and fairness. The news media wrestled with these two terms when global warming became a hot topic during the past couple of decades. Eventually, the issue was treated as science, and simply allowing two sides to the debate was no longer an option for some media outlets. Many sided with science and detractors were presented as a fringe element. The same type of debate erupted over a link between autism and vaccines, a link the vast majority of scientists and studies say does not exist. Many journalists are increasingly moving beyond the idea of objectivity and into the realm of fairness. Their idea is to fairly represented the information, opinions and observations of the world around us.

In the documentary film and journalism worlds — two disciplines that are becoming increasingly close — ethical boundaries play a key role. The notion of fairness came to mind when viewing the panel discussion at this year’s Based on a True Story Conference held in early March at the Missouri School of Journalism. Documentary filmmakers and journalists there agreed they might be better suited to veer toward the side of fairness—not objectivity—in today’s news and information realm.

Fairness also came to mind when a film about vaccines and autism (Vaxxed from director Andrew Wakefield) was accepted by—then later booted from–the Tribeca Film Festival. Robert De Niro, a festival co-founder, was caught up in a storm of controversy over the film’s acceptance to the festival. Initially, De Niro and Tribeca stood behind the film. “Like most film fests, Tribeca is about dialogue & conversation. We present opposing viewpoints without judgement or endorsement,” the organization wrote in a tweet on March 23.

But De Niro and Tribeca eventually backed down. The film was removed from the program and De Niro explained the festival made the decision after deciding Vaxxed did not add to any the scientific discussion. “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family,” De Niro said in a statement released by Tribeca. “But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

Wakefield is a researcher who published research in the late 1990s claiming to reveal a link between children’s vaccines and the developmental disorder. Measured by the gauge of fairness, Tribeca ultimately removed the film because of the overwhelming evidence vaccines do not cause autism in children. The film is merely “a call for debate where none exists,” wrote Katey Rich in Vanity Fair.

Journalists have long used the concept of objectivity to carry themselves as detached observers and relayers of information—presenting all sides to an issue, but judging none of them. Journalists held firm to this approach no matter how far-reaching one side’s argument might seem. As journalism scholar Michael Schudson wrote in 2001, objectivity is valuable as a counter to partisan media, which are open about picking sides. Objectivity is valuable in journalism, but does not always faithfully uphold other journalistic traits, such as presenting clear and accurate information to an open society. When giving the same weight to a far-fetched argument as one would to hard science, audience members might not weigh the value of the information received accurately in order to decide for themselves.

Documentary filmmakers have a unique platform and should err on the side of fairness in their work and not always strive for strict objectivity like a journalist. Their unique craft gives them the option to inform an audience in a much different, yet every bit as important way as the traditional news media. As documentaries and journalism continue to intersect, audience members should continue to demand accuracy and truth, a la Albert Maysles, but also a fair exhibition of facts so they can make up their own minds.