Documentary Power Research Institute

Based at the Center for Media & Social Impact, the Documentary Power Research Institute produces public research and convenes topical conversations to investigate and strengthen the role and power of documentary storytelling in democracy, social change, and justice.

Documentary Power Research Institute

Based at the Center for Media & Social Impact, the Documentary Power Research Institute produces public research and convenes topical conversations to investigate and strengthen the role and power of documentary storytelling in democracy, social change, and justice.

With seed funding from the Perspective Fund, the multi-disciplinary Institute grapples with the field’s most urgent challenges and works to expand access to timely learnings, needs and tools of documentary-centered research in order to serve academic and practitioner communities interested in the role that documentaries can play in community building and fields of social impact, justice and change. The Institute also spotlights the legacies and present-day work of impact producers, activists, filmmakers, and organizations who are committed to leveraging documentaries for social impact.
Advisory Group

Initiatives of the Documentary Power Research Institute

Investigating Documentary’s Social Influence and Impact in the Participatory Media Age

This project examines what “success” means in the context of contemporary documentary social impact campaign work, including identifying the core elements and practices that are common among them; in the converse, it also takes a hard look at practices that are not useful or beneficial. As documentary work continues to evolve in a transformative media age, the study of affiliated social impact campaign work also needs to evolve. Reports coming soon.

Documentary Influence and Effects: Social Science Investigates Nonfiction

Through this initiative, Doc Power will work with leading scholars and social scientists across fields to apply various research methodologies to examine documentary’s social impact, from audience persuasion effects to network mapping. This work will also explore how to tell research-based stories about the societal influence of documentary storytelling at the level of the audience, broader culture and activism, and media agendas. Reports coming soon.

The Lens Reflected: Documentary Representation Study That Asks "Who's Telling Whose Story in Contemporary Documentary?"

The Lens Reflected is an urgent and unprecedented study and field examination. The research answers these questions: In the streaming era of documentary storytelling focused on social issues, what portraits of reality do we see on screen, and who is telling whose stories? Who are the directors (race, gender) and who are the on-screen protagonists? The study reveals the racial and gender identification of all directors and main protagonists for all documentaries distributed in the streaming era for documentary storytelling (2014-2020), across top networks that distribute nonfiction.

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Future of Documentary Impact Distribution for Social Justice

In its evolution, social-issue documentary storytelling has thrived as a discourse for social justice and change because of its ability to work within a “dual distribution system” – that is, distributed as entertainment and journalism across mainstream media outlets, but also disseminated as part of broader social engagement efforts in community spaces. Over the past several years, however, it is increasingly difficult to successfully retain sufficient rights or maintain the ability to do social impact engagement work with their films. Questions to be addressed include: For social impact and grassroots engagement with their documentaries, what should filmmakers be asking for (from distributors) at the deal level in terms of rights? What is the challenge at the level of streaming distributors? Report coming soon.

Holding Documentary Films Accountable: Watchdog, Trade and Media Industry Journalism

Documentary films are widely regarded as islands of integrity in a sea of mis- and disinformation. Yet documentary production has little accountability. Producers are typically beholden to the larger institutions that fund and distribute their work. Festivals and associated panels skirt difficult ethical and structural issues, instead focusing on the celebratory and stories of achievement. Mainstream journalism by and large focuses on entertainment coverage. Trade journalism focuses on reporting on the business, and trade journals and actors depend on both sponsorship by and information from institutional actors.This project shines a light on this problem of accountability, with a focus on the potential for change in the journalistic realm but with peripheral vision for change in related places mentioned above.

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The State of the Documentary Field Study of Documentary Professionals

As part of CMSI and IDA’s biennial global study of documentary filmmakers’ perspectives about diversity, economics, platforms and future plans, this research is designed to understand documentary industry members’ perspectives and lived experiences around economics, motivations, diversity and representation, funding, and changing platforms in the streaming media age.

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The Digital Power Webinar Series

In 2020, the historic societal upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted industries and professional life around the world, including film and TV. Documentary storytellers, impact producers, and engagement strategists were affected in countless ways, compelling new strategy lessons and approaches to their work. Documentaries with social impact goals were challenged to move beyond the legacy of physical screenings and community-based events to find audiences, spur dialogue, create partnerships, and forge movements in the virtual world. The Digital Power series, an 8-part masterclass webinar series (September to November 2020), aimed to address these questions by inviting leading communication and marketing strategists to join in conversation with documentary impact strategists and makers around the world.

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