How newsrooms are embracing documentary film

by Margaret Looney
Oct 30, 2018 in Multimedia Journalism

The recently launched Al Jazeera America is one of the latest news outlets to invest in an in-house documentary unit. It plans to produce original documentary films on topics like immigration, education, poverty, healthcare and other social issues.

"We hope to provide a new platform for original points of view and seldom-heard voices and bring compelling, innovative stories and insights to American viewers," said Cynthia Kane, the documentary unit's senior producer, in a press release.

Al Jazeera America will be continuing Al Jazeera's tradition of reporting investigative pieces with documentaries on a variety of topics, like profiles on the Koch brothers, sorcery-related infanticide in the African republic of Benin and others.

The Wall Street Journal is working on its first episodic video documentary series, departing from its traditional in-depth video pieces on topics like Europe's debt crisis and the life of Chinese politician Bo Xilai.

In a series promising to be "the first of its kind on a digital platform," WSJ is documenting 25 entrepreneurial businesses as they compete in the eight-month competition Startup of the Year. Chronicling the process week by week, episodes have featured advice from business mentors like Virgin founder Richard Branson, weekly assignments for the entrepreneurs and more.

The Guardian has been using documentary films for its multimedia investigations for more than a decade. Comprised of a small team of freelance journalists and filmmakers, the Guardian Films unit has carried out long-form video projects in Iraq, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Uganda and Gaza.

The team's productions range from micro-documentaries, such as a profile of an Afghan child who is the sole breadwinner for his family, to full-length films like "James Steele: America's mystery man in Iraq," the product of a 15-month investigation into a retired U.S. colonel's connection to a network of torture centers in Iraq.

Newsrooms aren't just using the medium to report investigative pieces, but also to capture human interest, arts and culture. PBS Arts produces an original micro-documentary series called Off Book that explores topics like web comics, Twitter's impact on journalism, fan culture and the art of animation.

The New York Times uses the form to express more personal points of view and dissections of everyday life with Op-Docs, short films that "express distinctive opinions and perspectives." The filmmaking team uses a variety of artistic approaches to the traditional documentary narrative to capture moments like male ballet artists dancing in crowded subway cars or this animated piece about a New Yorker looking forward to city's bike-sharing system.

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via flowercat.