Empowering Media That Matters
Home >> Media Impact >> Related Materials >> Documents >> Dangerous Documentaries: Resources for Filmmakers

Dangerous Documentaries: Resources for Filmmakers


Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power

Many of the issues most important for our society to recognize and discuss are also those that powerful people or institutions don’t want made public. Non-fiction filmmakers who tell truth to power often face aggressive attack from powerful individuals, governmental bodies, businesses and associations. 

The collection of resources below is intended to support filmmakers facing such attacks and promote investigative work that combines the best practices of documentary and journalism. These resources can help filmmakers navigate legal and insurance issues, crate crisis commuications and safety plans, secure critical and confidential data, connect with other filmmakers, and more. 

This collection was created as part of the Center for Media & Social Impact's research project and report "Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power," which was funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "Dangeorus Documentaries" draws on 53 interviews of makers of non-fiction films and TV programs, programmers, funders, lawyers, and insurers, as well as a wide search of literature and participation in public events. The report finds that although serious legal trouble is rare, risks are real and can create a chilling effect on works exploring important social issues. 

You can read the full report here



Legal Guides

Permission from subjects

Legal Representation

Journalistic Best Practices

Research and Monitoring

Physical and Mental Safety


Responding to Smear Campaigns

Privacy and Information Security





Cameras in Court: A State-By-State Guide
Radio Television Digital News Association
Hoping to film in a courtroom? Learn more about your state’s policy on recording in court.

Defamation Privileges and Defenses
Digital Media Law Project
If someone accuses you of defamation, there are a number of defenses and privileges you can raise to protect yourself. Explore them here. 

The First Amendment Handbook
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Get familiar with the basic rights and freedoms that may have an effect on your work. Topics include how to avoid libel, protect your privacy, preserve confidentiality, and access certain locations.

Know Your Rights
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Find out how to  protect your rights and secure your data when dealing with the police in a search-and-seizure situation, whether you’re at home or crossing international borders.

Legal Guide
Digital Media Law Project
This legal guide was specifically made for independent content creators and is searchable by state, keyword, section, or subject area.

Legal Hotline: 800-336-4243
Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press
This hotline provides fast, free legal information.

Reporter’s Recording Guide
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Determining how and when you can legally record conversations is a complex issue, but this guide breaks down Federal and state laws to help you navigate it.
The Reporter’s Privilege
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Learn more about the shield laws that apply in your area. This site offers a comprehensive set of State and Federal guides on reporter’s privilege, including sections on the scope of protection and who is covered under each law.
SLAPP Stick: Fighting Frivolous Lawsuits Against Journalists
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
If you suspect that you may be or have been the victim of a lawsuit meant to intimidate you into silence, read up on your state’s laws prohibiting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). 


Clearance and Copyright4th Ed.
Michael Donaldson and Lisa Callif
Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use
Center for Media & Social Impact 
Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online & Off
Richard Stim
If you need to seek permissions, this book includes information about the permissions process and form permission agreements  

Stanford University Libraries
Stanford University

Permission from subjects

Obtaining Informed Consent
What’s involved in getting real informed consent from subjects, written for human rights advocates but applicable to many.
Stanford University Libraries
If you include footage of others in your film, you may need to secure a signed release. This resource includes information about when you need to use a release and some general rules for releases.

 Back to top


Electronic Frontier Foundation
While the Electronic Frontier Foundation takes on very few cases directly, they may be able to refer you.
European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to protecting civil and human rights throughout Europe. 

Media Legal Defence Initiative
The Media Legal Defence Initiative provides legal help for journalists, bloggers and independent media makers.
Online Media Legal Network
The Online Media Network is a network of firms, law school clinics, and individual lawyers across the United States who may be able to provide legal assistance on a pro bono or reduced fee basis to qualifying digital media creators.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides free legal assistance to journalists.

 Back to top


BBC Academy
The College of Journalism, part of the BBC, oversees training for BBC News staff. This website focuses on core skills, safety, specialist areas, legal and ethical issues, and houses the News style guide.

Journalistic Guidelines
FRONTLINE / WGBH Educational Foundation
This comprehensive set of guidelines for nonfiction producers illustrates FRONTLINE’s own journalistic process, and provides simple yet in-depth discussion of best practices.
Nieman Watchdog
Nieman Foundation
These reports focus on how journalists can hold those in power accountable.
The Solutions Journalism Toolkit
Solutions Journalism Network
A free practical guide to solutions journalism.
Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists
This guide presents the basic methods and techniques of investigative journalism, but with a focus on good storytelling - which means it could be extremely useful for your next documentary.
Ten Steps to Investigative Reporting
International Center for Journalists
These steps cover some good principles for first-time filmmakers, and include tips on building support, working with sources, and verifying information for first-timers and veterans alike. 

Poynter Institute
Sharpen your journalism skills with workshops, webinars, self-directed courses, and more.

 Back to top


75+ Tools for Investigative Journalists
Journalism Tools / Medium.com
This extensive list includes links to sites for monitoring news and social media, collecting information, and mapping out story ideas.

Journalist’s Resource
Shorenstein Center
This database provides up-to-date research on topics relevant to today’s most important stories.

Verification HandbookVerification Handbook for Investigative Reporting
This handbook provides the fundamentals of online search and research techniques for investigations.

 Back to top


Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is dedicated to informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy. It provides, among other things, resources and training.

Disaster and Crisis Coverage
International Center for Journalists
This guide focuses not only on physical safety but also on managing stress and emotional strain.
Handbook for Journalists
Reporters Without Borders
This guide discusses principles, norms, strategies and other information useful to media professionals working in conflict zones. Available in English, Urdu, and Kurdish. 
“How Was Your Trip?” Self-Care for Researchers Working and Writing on Violence
Social Science Research Council
This paper provides support for researchers dealing with traumatic subjects or working in dangerous environments.
Journalist Security Guide
Committee to Protect Journalists
Know the risks and prepare for them before you head out into the field. This guide can help you plan for conflict zones, natural disasters, health epidemics, and more.
The Journalist Survival Guide: An Animated Video Guide
Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom
These animated videos are available in English and Arabic and communicate safety information in a much more visual way. The sites includes digital security lessons as well.
Live News: A Survival Guide for Journalists
International Federation of Journalists
This guide focuses primarily on working in war and conflict zones, but raises important considerations for any filmmaker entering unknown and potentially hazardous environments.
Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues
RISC trains and equips freelance journalists in all media to treat life-threatening injuries on the battlefield, offering training free to freelancers.
Safety & Security
Rory Peck Trust
This site offers tools and resources to help you think about risk as you prepare to film. For providers of conflict zone training in the UK, click here.
Safety & Security
This presentation on staying safe and protecting subjects in the field was written for human rights advocates but is applicable to journalists and filmmakers.  

 Back to top


Documentary Filmmakers and Fair Use
This guide to fair use includes advice on using insurance to protect yourself and your project.  

Rory Peck Trust
If you think you need insurance but you’re not sure where to start, this site can help you figure out what types of coverage you need and what to look for when choosing a policy.   

 Back to top


Crisis Management and Communications
Institute for Public Relations
This guide to best practices in crisis communications can help you contain damage from media attacks.

 Back to top


Digital Security
Rory Peck Trust
This site provides a number of resources that can help you lay the groundwork for secure communication  and determine what risks you may face.  It also addresses specific security questions, such as how to safely use a public computer and avoid online monitoring.
Encrypting Email
Free Software Foundation
This guide can help you keep your emails private.

Email Self Defense
Free Software Foundation
This site gives step-by-step instructions for setting up encrypted email. This is especially important if you want to communicate securely with someone.
Encryption Works: How to Protect Your Privacy in the Age of NSA Surveillance
Freedom of the Press Foundation
This resource provides an overview of digital security, including a basic primer on what encryption is and what software you can trust.
Online Guide to Practical Privacy Tools
Electronic Privacy Information Center
This guide includes a quick list of privacy and security enhancing tools.
Privacy Pack
Reset the Net
The Privacy Pack provides an easy-to-follow list of privacy enhancing technologies that work across a variety of platforms, including mobile.
Freedom of the Press Foundation
SecureDrop is an open-source submission system which allows you to securely accept documents from anonymous sources.
Security in-a-Box: Tools and Tactics for your Digital Security
Tactical Technology Collective & Front Line Defenders
This site provides a range of How-Tos on specific security precautions you can take, such as securing your smart phone and social media accounts. It also includes guides for using a variety of common security programs.
SpeakSafe: Media Workers' Toolkit for Safer Online and Mobile Practices
This guide lists straight-forward steps to securing your information and is set up to apply across environments, platforms, and levels of expertise.
Surveillance Self-Defense: Tips, Tools and How-tos for Safer Online Communications
Electronic Frontier Foundation
This guide provides comprehensive information on choosing the right security tools and how to use them. It also has sections dedicated to journalists, activists, and human rights defenders.

Back to top 


Committee to Protect Journalists
A nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting press freedom around the world.
The D-Word
An online community of documentary filmmakers and professionals, centered around forum discussion.
A community of documentary filmmakers connected via an interactive mailing list. The site also provides a list of links to programs and organizations relevant to filmmaking.

First Amendment Project
Provides legal advice and representation on First Amendment matters to journalists, freelancers, documentarians, activists and artists.

Freedom of the Press Foundation
A non-profit organization dedicated to helping support and defend public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government.
A forum for filmmakers.

International Documentary Association
A nonprofit membership organization for nonfiction filmmakers and industry professionals.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
A nonprofit association dedicated to providing free legal assistance to journalists since 1970.
Shooting People
A place for independent filmmakers to discuss projects, find collaborators and funding, and learn new skills.
Society of Professional Journalists
A national membership organization for journalists.

Online News Association
A nonprofit membership organization for digital journalists, connecting journalism, technology and innovation.

Back to top



The Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, formerly the Center for Social Media, is an innovation lab and research center that studies, designs, and showcases media for social impact. The center is a project of the School of Communication, led by Jeffrey Rutenbeck, at American University in Washington, D.C.