Dishonesty in Documentaries

Why Narrative Freedom Ought to be Allowed

Documentaries live in the gray. People expect art to lie to them, to use a representation to trick them into feeling emotion. People expect journalism to tell an unbiased, objective interpretation of the truth. But people cannot agree to what factual standards documentaries ought to be held, because documentaries are both art and journalism.

Illustrator: Lindy Wirth

Illustrator: Lindy Wirth

The greatest measure of speech is how much power it posses. The impact of documentaries on the public consciousness demonstrates the power of documentaries today. This power comes not from insignificant truth, nor from baseless opinions, but from somewhere in the middle. Documentaries must be comfortable riding in the gray area between impact and trust, because that is where it possesses maximum power.

The filmmaker ultimately decides how to ride the gray. Some filmmakers opt to be more fact-heavy, while others focus more on interpretation and mass appeal. There is one threat that currently exists to push filmmakers to be more unbiased: lawsuits.

This power comes not from insignificant truth, nor from baseless opinions, but from somewhere in the middle.

The more narrative freedoms filmmakers take, the more likely it is they are sued. Lawsuits are viable if someone can claim they were hurt by the inaccuracies in the documentary and if they are ordinary citizens (famous citizens are fair game). Even if the lawsuit isn’t viable, the act of defending oneself in court often costs an exorbitant amount of money. A lawsuit after the release of documentary can do little to make the documentary more factual; however, the mere threat of future lawsuits incentivizes filmmakers to stick to the facts.

One thing to remember about the system we have now is that it works. To force documentary filmmakers to be more factual would give more power to those who wish to censor contrary opinions expressed through documentaries. Documentaries cover a wide base of information, and a few inaccuracies are not enough to make the entire point moot. The information in a documentary should be taken with a grain of salt, but the point often contains a kernel of truth. Documentaries exist not to maintain a perfect record of the world, but to balance facts and their artistic interpretations to appeal to the masses. Documentaries may not be a perfect source of truth, but they must be allowed to live in the gray.