Empowering Media That Matters
Home >> Blog >> Future Public Media >> Dangerous Docs Stars at #ONA15

Dangerous Docs Stars at #ONA15

At the Online News Association conference in September, an annual gathering of the sharpest minds in journalism today, a panel discussion of “dangerous docs”—documentaries that tell truth to power—drew an overflow crowd.


In focus was the Center’s MacArthur-Foundation-funded recent report, Dangerous Documentaries: Minimizing Risk when Telling Truth to Power. The study revealed three common problems among documentarians and, sometimes, journalists as well:

  • Overestimating risk. Lawsuits are infrequent and idiosyncratic; smear campaigns cost time and money but generally are great publicity; and errors and omissions insurers generally don’t penalize filmmakers the next time around for trouble they didn’t cause.
  • Underestimating risk. Hazardous situations require better training, and journalistic best practices go a long way to avoiding trouble.
  • Headscratchers. Some problems have no good solutions right now. Independent journalists and documentarians need a clearinghouse for information, and a fund to cover costs for things like hazardous area training, insurance deductibles, and personal costs when attacked in the press or sued. As well, there just aren’t great solutions to security of communications and data at the moment, partly because everyone in the chain of communication has to share in the security measures.

Under attack.

Carrie Lozano, a journalist/filmmaker, recalled The Gap’s attempt to intimidate her when she made an Al Jazeera America documentary about child sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh. “I had Al Jazeera America behind me on that project,” said Lozano, “but if I had been on my own, the legal threats would have been very scary.” The report's resources, she noted, point to both knowledge and support organizations that could have helped.

Brian Knappenberger, a filmmaker/journalist, pointed out that often the threat is a powerful person or company simply withholding information or access.  This happened to him both with Apple and with Mark Cuban.

“In that case, it’s also important to know about fair use,” he said. “You can often use materials without permission, however much the subject may dislike it.” He pointed attendees to the Center's resources on fair use.

Subtle pressures.

KCETLink’s head of development and production Juan Devis noted that another challenge is the limitations put on work by the funder. He recalled that in his native Colombia, telling truth to power involved getting yourself killed. Here, he said, it’s a subtler game.

“A lot of funding comes to us with serious strings attached. There’s a certain form of very quiet constant harassment, whether from the funding to the corporations you’re trying to tell about, that puts a burden on the capacity of the journalist.” It’s his job, he said, to run interference and turn on the green lights throughout the process.

Gregg Leslie, head of litigation at the Reporters’ Committee on Freedom of the Press, noted that they treat documentaries as journalism, and encourage independent producers of longform work to consult with them at any point. “We don’t take a position on what you do,” he said. “At RCFP we try to help the filmmakers to tell the story they want to tell.”