We have synthesized our findings into 7 evidence-based reasons for why (and how) documentaries should be used as a platform for organizing urgently needed community events.
1) DOCUMENTARIES ARE CUTTING THROUGH A CLIMATE OF MEDIA MISTRUST.
At a time of unprecedented levels of media mistrust, 99 percent of the people who participated in this study said that they believe the documentary provided a “true portrayal of a real problem.” People in communities across the country — reflecting diversity in political ideology, demographics, socio-economic status, and media access — expressed “trusting” the information provided by the documentary. This feedback was especially prevalent in communities that were in or adjacent to news deserts, but it was also expressed in every community engaged by this study; public TV stations and community organizations have an opportunity to leverage their trust to meet increasing demands for information and community collaboration, amid spreading climates of media mistrust and news deserts, with documentary-centered community discussions.
2) DOCUMENTARIES ARE REPORTING CRITICAL STORIES ON RACIAL VIOLENCE AND OTHER SOCIAL ISSUES THAT LOCAL AND NATIONAL MEDIA ARE OVERLOOKING.
Not only did participants across the country say they feel stories of interest to them are being missed by local and mainstream news outlets, but they also expressed a desire for sources of information that presents more context and details than they often find in mainstream news coverage today. The documentary, they say, is capable of addressing these needs. Documentaries are centering the concerns and experiences of communities who are traditionally pushed to the margins of mainstream news coverage.
3) DOCUMENTARIES ARE MAKING NEWS PERSONAL AND HELPING PEOPLE MAKE-MEANING FROM THE NEWS.
Documentaries are capable of making emotional connections with audiences in ways that other mainstream news and information outlets often do not. While “the news” often feels distant, participants described the documentary as feeling personal. By being transported deeply into an engaging story, rather than recitation of factual information alone, viewers experience an empathetic, emotional connection with the subjects they meet on screen.
During the focus group discussions, we explored what it is about the documentary that makes it so trustworthy. Participants frequently pointed to the details, historical facts, and balance of the documentary as its most trustworthy attributes, but they also expressed feeling like these contextual details were impactful because they were embedded into a long-form narrative that transported, engaged, and emotionally involved them in ways that other forms of media do not. As a result, they said, it helped them to make meaning of the facts and to better understand, trust, and empathize with the implications of the facts being presented.
Several participants said that the documentary connected with them emotionally, and that helped them empathize with others’ experiences. In the survey, the majority of respondents said that they were emotionally transported by the documentary. About 66% of surveyed respondents, for instance, said they ‘forgot where they were and got sucked into the story’. Further, while the majority of respondents (66%) said that they also ‘personally identified with one or more of the characters’ (66%), nearly every participant (90%) said that they found themselves ‘wondering how they would feel and behave if they were in any one of the characters positions?” For instance, several participants in the focus groups identified with the mother of Lennon Lacy, who was a central person in the documentary, and they spoke about how the documentary humanized people that they feel would have largely been treated as stereotypes or statistics in mainstream news reporting.
4) DOCUMENTARIES ARE EFFECTIVE TOOLS FOR COMMUNITY BUILDING.
Participants across the country expressed the feeling that having a chance to come together with other members of their community and discuss issues important to them was helpful and rare. The community screenings provided people with a space to share ideas and engage in dialogue with each other in a real community environment. And participants say the live screening events have the power to bring people together in a way that is lasting, with organizers saying that community members have continued reaching out to them in the days following the screening about other ways that they can convene.
There is an opportunity today for public television and community organizations to play an especially crucial role in facilitating producing community experiences and dialogue by using their trust for good. As trusted institutions, the public television stations and community organizations engaged in this research proved capable of overcoming today’s moment of heightened media distrust. People depended on their trust in public TV and the local organizations to both commit the time and expend the moral, emotional and intellectual energy to engage with each other. At this moment, trusted local institutions have an opportunity to provide a service that communities are calling for and to provide a service of significant value in the streaming era.
5) DOCUMENTARY-DRIVEN COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS ARE NOT THE SAME AS “PANEL EVENTS.”
Participants expressed appreciation for the context and opportunity provided during panel events, especially when the filmmaker is involved in the conversation, but many participants also emphasized how different they are from a ‘real conversation’ in which people have time to engage one another in dialogue and to make meaning together. The call-and-response nature of panels often limits the ability of community participants to become part of a collective conversation. This highlights the difference between formats which prioritize the dissemination of perspectives and information, and formats which are designed to foster community building – this study found both to be of value, but that panel events often minimize the opportunity for community building. While panel events often create a one-way flow of engagement between the ‘panel’ and ‘audience’, this study found that community conversations are capable of breaking down such categories and hierarchies. The community conversations facilitated by this study provided opportunities — within about the same amount of time as a typical panel conversation — for people to feel like they were participants in a community building event and for them to engage meaningfully with each other on difficult subjects; as such, community conversations should be considered a valuable pursuit of largely untapped potential in documentary events.
6) DOCUMENTARY-BASED COMMUNITY EVENTS ARE DISRUPTING CULTURES OF SILENCE, PROVOKING CHANGE AND HELPING PEOPLE TO CREATE NEW COMMUNITIES.
Participants frequently expressed the feeling that the act of watching the documentary and discussing it with their community compelled them “to confront” rather than just “learn” or “think about” the realities and experiences of racial violence in their community. About 1 in 3 people who attended the documentary screening said they had never seen a documentary about a social issue with their community before, though every survey respondent said it was either “very helpful” or “helpful” to do so.
People spoke about cultures of silence in their community around racial violence and other social issues. In confronting these realities together, community discussions moved toward provocations, challenges, calls for change, meaning making, and shared expressions to play more active roles in shaping their communities. In this way, the documentary planted seeds of further learning, further action, and further self-awareness — all of which were then further developed through the community conversations that followed.
7) AFFIRMATIONS OF SUPPORT ARE NOT ENOUGH, COMMUNITY BUILDING NECESSITATES ACTION — AND COMMUNITY GROUPS/STATIONS HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY.
While breaking cultures of silence around racial violence and injustice is an essential first step, participants in every community also raised the importance of ensuring that tangible actions, accountabilities and commitments follow from community conversations. Community groups and stations have an opportunity to provide a real service in helping to facilitate such follow-up action and play an important role in community building by doing so, a chance to build trusting relationships with not only individuals but institutions.