What is the Future of Documentary Storytelling?

by Leslie Fields-Cruz

Last fall, American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact published a report titled, The State of Journalism on the Documentary Filmmaking Scene. The first and perhaps most important question authors Patricia Aufderheide and Marissa Woods explore in their report is whether the field of documentary filmmaking is growing faster than its standards.

They report that between 2019 and 2020, the genre grew by 120%, making it the fastest growing segment of the streaming market. Sounds great right? Well, that’s until you realize that the growth was accompanied by some unsettling practices: fictional docudramas being promoted under the “documentary” banner, historical reenactments that play fast and loose with the facts, investigative stories that skew evidence to support a more commercially appealing narrative, corporate entities funding documentaries that spotlight products or policies that benefit their profitability, and more.

I’m delighted to see the growing popularity of documentary storytelling. But the trends cited in the CMSI report are disturbing. Documentaries should present well told stories that engage their audiences, but when entertainment trumps truth telling, there’s a problem. I agree with Patricia and Marissa’s conclusion that the need for high journalistic standards appears more imperative than ever.

BPM exists to ensure Black media storytellers and Black stories get fair representation, both in production and distribution. We care deeply about preserving documentary filmmaking’s reputation for high standards because without them, the credibility of our stories would be ground to dust. Already, the anti-CRT movement has some Americans questioning the need to tell unsettling Black stories. Imagine how much worse it would be if our documentaries lacked credibility. If the commercial side of the documentary world fails to respect and embrace high standards, while also out-bidding the public media side, what will that mean for the future of Black documentaries?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter. What role do you think BPM should play in all of this? Should we do more to emphasize journalistic standards in our training programs? Should we create a separate funding track for documentaries that do not adhere to these standards? Should we work with our public media partners to persuade our for-profit counterparts that a shared commitment to these standards benefits everyone?

Send your responses to me on social media or via email.

— Fields-Cruz is the executive director of Black Public Media

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Black Public Media

Black Public Media (BPM) develops, produces, funds, and distributes media content about the African American and global Black experience.