Deciding What to
Believe in an Age of Information Abundance:
Exploring Non-Fiction Television in Education
Author: Dr. Renee Hobbs
Associate Professor of Communication
Babson College, Wellesley, MA
This paper explores the
crucial but largely unconscious decisions that we make each day as we
decide which information is believable and truthful. By looking carefully
at the ways in which some television messages can be made to seem authentic
and credible, the author provides specific strategies for how teachers
can improve students'critical viewing skills through dynamic, interactive
learning activities that invite students to ask,"How do I decide what
Who hasn't sat in a darkened
classroom, listening to the"beep" of the filmstrip or the clacking of
the take-up reel, or basking in the blue glow of the television monitor?
For nearly 70 years, non-fiction and documentary programs have been
used in American public schools. In a recent survey of high school teachers,
22% claimed to use television programs frequently, and teachers also
report that more than 50% of the video materials used for instructional
purposes were obtained via taping programs at home off the air (Public
Broadcasting Service, 1997).
As a result of cable television
and the increasing number of choices on television, the elementary school
may no longer be the first place where some children encounter television
non-fiction. There has been an explosion in the quantity of non-fiction
materials available to children in the home, including news programs
(Nick News), documentaries and animal programs (Krafftís Creatures).
However, this increased quantity of educational and informational programming
does not ensure that children will be exposed to it. In particular,
urban schoolteachers have reported that children have less and less
familiarity with informational messages of any sort: television news,
newspapers, documentaries, animal and nature programming (Hobbs, 1999).
In an age of information abundance, it is possible to use television
as an escape from reality, and in many families, non-fiction programming
is not a part of how television is used in the home.
When elementary or secondary
teachers use documentaries or other non-fiction materials, they often
identify it as "enrichment"óa resource that enhances their coverage
of subject areas, particularly language arts, social studies, history,
science and geography. This often leads to the belief school-sanctioned
media messages are unproblematic that, like a textbook, the information
is just 'there.' But just as scholars and educators are beginning to
identify the biases, myths and propaganda in textbooks (Loewen, 1995),
it is critically important that teachers open up a range of questions
in the classroom that invite students to become more reflective about
the largely unconscious process of deciding what to believe.
Perhaps the fact that non-fiction
programs are perceived as believable and trustworthy is the best reason
of all to subject them to the process of critical inquiry. Determining
the truth value of information has become increasingly difficult in
an age of increasing diversity and ease of access to information. While
the concept of truth and its uncertain and changing value(s) has been
problematized by philosophers, historians and scholars throughout this
century, this paper presents a more modest and practical approach to
the questions about evaluating the truth claims of media messages. In
this paper, we review a number of classroom strategies that teachers
have used to examine the construction of authority and authenticity
in non-fiction and documentary television programming. We contend that
careful analysis of deciding what to believe about non-fiction television
can open up opportunities to explore parallel decision-making processes
about what we choose to believe when we encounter information in the
newspaper, on the radio, in film, from friends and colleagues, and on
the internet. Exploring the domain of non-fiction television can inspire
discussion of some of the humanities'important questions about truth,
intentionality, meaning, and interpretation in ways that are relevant
to young people.
What is Non-Fiction Television?
Many students are familiar
with the word 'documentary,'and teachers are aware of the existing attitudes
about beliefs their students have about this genre of film and television
programming. By middle school, students can usually identify the specific
broadcast and cable channels that feature documentaries, and some will
recognize that most documentary programs are not designed for a youth
audience. While many students enjoy documentaries, others can have negative
attitudes, and label these programs as 'boring', 'slow,'and 'tedious.'
When students are asked, "Who watches documentaries?" they often identify
teachers as a target audience. Social class differences are evident
in students' background knowledge about documentaries, since students
from low-income environments often have less personal home-viewing experience
with documentaries than those from middle- and upper-class households.
When Scottish filmmaker
John Grierson defined the documentary near the turn of the century as
"the creative interpretation of actuality," he recognized that documentaries
are creative representations of actual people, groups and events. According
to Medhurst (1989), "Grierson established the documentary film as the
type dealing with the"creative treatment of actuality. For Grierson,
both the 'creative'and the 'actuality'dimensions were crucial for a
proper understanding of the documentary form."
Under this broad definition,
we may also consider reality-based shows like America's Most Wanted,
Rescue 911 and Cops to be "creative interpretations of actuality." While
many students claim to find 'school TV' boring, non-fiction programs
are quite popular with young American students in their home viewing
environments. Reality-based genre programs have large audiences of pre-adolescent
and young teens. These programs are compelling and provocative, purporting
to represent the lives of real people in dramatic situations often involving
accidents or violence, using a format that often includes recreations,
simulations and manipulation of images and sounds. These programs are
reshaping the conventions and routines of both the news and the documentary
producer. For young people, these are the present-day, non-school based
documentaries, a "creative interpretation of actuality."
Why the national obsession
with this sort of voyeuristic entertainment? According to Segal (1993),
"The preponderance of these shows is also related to the bottom line:
they are extremely inexpensive to produce. Why engage a group of talented
writers and producers to make intelligent and exciting TV when itís
more profitable to dip into the endless pool of human grief?" Clearly,
there are distinct pleasures associated with watching 'real' human grief
as opposed to fictionalized human grief, as evidenced by the ratings
for this disturbing form of entertainment. This phenomenon also explains
the recent spate of reality-based programs, including Most Terrible
Car Crashes, Wildest Police Videos, and the like.
Teachers have explored students'understanding
of the complex determinations involved in assessing the 'realism'of
a media message through a classroom activity that explores the boundaries
of the genres of non-fiction and fiction television. The activity invites
students to place various types of programs on a continuum that ranges
from 'more real'to 'less real'. Students quickly discover that, while
there is broad consensus about the realism of some programs, others
do not fit comfortably on the continuum. Is a televised sports game
more real or less real than a game show? Is a newsmagazine program like
20/20 less real than a network sports program? What makes fiction often
seem more 'real' than non-fiction? By problematizing the concept of
realism, this activity invites students to reflect on how much we use
genre-based expectations in assessing whether a media message is true
What is the Producer's
Because the documentary
has a kind of intellectual authority as a 'serious'genre in film and
television, many viewers assume that the documentary is neutral or objective.
But this fallacy is dangerous precisely because it leads away from critically
analyzing a message. Since all messages express a point of view, the
simplest way to explore the concept of point-of-view is to identify
the constellation of motives which drive a producer to create a documentary:
to inform, to educate, to entertain, to persuade, for self-expression,
Identifying the motives
of documentary filmmakers has a distinguished intellectual history,
as Erik Barnouw (1974) first established the enterprise in his landmark
history of the genre by identifying each chapter of the book by a label
which suggests motive-- like "Explorer," "Visionary," and so forth.
In his book, Theorizing Documentary, Renov (1993) identifies similar
rhetorical and aesthetic functions of non-fiction arts, but omits the
functions of entertainment and profit because he is primarily concerned
with independent documentary productions.
Occasionally, teachers make
use of the concepts of 'bias'and 'ideology'to analyze the producer's
purpose. Because a producer works in a social, political and economic
context that sets constraints on a program's content, tone and stylistic
elements, there are enormous variations within this genre. Documentaries
which are produced in Great Britain through the BBC are usually quite
different from those produced by US. commercial programming, which differ
from independently produced documentaries. In the United States, many
people associate the word 'documentary'with the particular characteristics
which mark the non-fiction programs produced by public television. But
in exploring the widest range of documentaries which represent "creative
interpretations of actuality," enormous differences are apparent. These
differences are more systematic than simply those of stylistic or individual
differences between filmmakers. Educators can use the study of the documentary
to reveal how technological and economic forces in the broadcasting
industry have shaped the representation of historical fact. Rapping
The contrast between the
1950s documentary approach of See It Now and that of contemporary
reports is telling. As video technology grew more sophisticated, the
triumph of style over content was heightened. This allowed the networks
to apply a variety of aesthetically moving and impressive techniques
to serious topics. On the other hand, the range of views examined,
and the depth of the examinations have not changed as much as sometimes
seems the case... Documentaries now serve the somewhat different purpose
of expounding on, and so justifying, policies already in place. They
rarely challenge hegemony, they explain it.
How Does the Producer's
Purpose Shape the Content?
During the 1950s and 60s,
many documentary producers believed that it was possible for the camera
to record 'raw'reality, to reduce the intervention of the filmmaker's
presence and give viewers "the feeling of being there." Lightweight
film equipment and the growing use of the camera as an instrument for
scientific observation led to the development of documentary techniques
called Direct Cinema, or 'cinema verite,' films that claimed to objectively
capture experience without the use of dramatic structure or narration
(Winston, 1995; Nichols, 1991). But the goal of capturing 'reality'
without the intervention of the filmmaker proved to be an illusive and
nonsensical goal. The camera must be directed by a human eye and mind,
and every choice about where to point the lens is a human decision which
shapes the program content (Tobias, 1998). Although a documentary can
authentically reproduce some aspects of actual experience, a documentary
cannot ever be perfectly objective.
Teachers have used student-created
media production projects to help students appreciate the creative shaping
involved in the construction of a documentary or non-fiction work. In
one activity, the teacher breaks the class into six teams-- giving each
team one of the six motives: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, for
self-expression, to teach, or to make profit. Using their motives to
drive the brainstorming, students identify their target audience, develop
a program concept, list the sources who will be featured on their program,
and describe some of the important locations and visual images that
will be shown.
In one classroom I observed,
a team of students whose purpose was to inform developed a documentary
about food preparation procedures in the fast food industry, with behind-the-scenes
images form MacDonaldís and Burger King. Another team, whose
purpose was to inform used a startling opening featuring stomach-churning
shots of midway rides at the state fear to hook viewers into a investigation
of salmonella poisoning at the fair. Another team developed a concept
that used high-profile celebrities and musicians like Whoopi Goldberg
and Seal to tell stories about their food poisoning experiences in order
to provide facts and lessons in an entertaining way. What was evident
in this classroom was that by working collaboratively to create a specific
message to suit these different motives, students were reflecting on
the complex decision-making involved in the choices about what language,
sound or images to use in creating media. It was clear that these students
were gaining some insight on how a sensitivity to producerís
motivation affects the process of deciding what information is more
or less credible.
While it is possible to
identify the journalistic 'line'or 'angle'of a documentary, the structural
logic of a work is often created in such a subtle manner that it escapes
detection until after the work is completed (Medhurst, 1989). Multiple
viewings and structural analysis of the choices made by the filmmaker
are an important process that teachers can use to help students analyze
how the producer's purpose shapes the content.
How are Image, Sound
and Language used to Manipulate the Message?
As a word, 'manipulation'
has a bad reputation. But the original meaning of the word manipulation
comes from the French word for 'handful.' When we examine the meanings
listed in the dictionary, manipulation means "to operate with the hands
in a skillful manner. But it also means to control or play upon "by
artful, unfair or insidious means to serve one's own purpose." Manipulation
is a necessary part of the creation of film and television. You have
to handle images and words--sort them, organize them and put them together--
in order to make a message meaningful.
Handling language is a complex
affair in the production of the documentary, because the language is
largely designed to be heard, not read. A documentary producer has to
write a script for the voice over, conduct interviews and edit them
to select only the most relevant and useful soundbites. The most challenging
part of the process consists of organizing the language to present information
is a sequence which is compelling.
The producer's ability to
control another person's voice-- their language, their presentation
of self-- is an area of documentary production that raises significant
ethical issues for consideration by students. For while the subject
of the interview controls what he or she chooses to say, the producer
can, through editing, re-shape the ideas the subject presents. And since
the producer controls the choice of language and image, a producer can
make a individual look strong or weak, believable or phony.
Students often first encounter
this when they create a video message as part of a school project, and
this phenomenon represents an important 'teachable moment'when it arises.
In one classroom, students conducted an interview with the school principal,
and discovered in the editing room that they could make the man look
like a fool pretty easily, just by selecting some phrases and ideas
and omitting others. The question, "What responsibility does a producer
have in representing a source?" acquires real depth and meaning when
it happens in the context of real-world media production activities.
Language is used to re-contextualize
the meaning of images used in a documentary, to lead the viewer towards
a 'correct' or 'preferred' interpretation of an image. I saw one simple
exercise used by a teacher to illustrate the producers' power and responsibility
in shaping a program by the selection of language. The teacher gave
students a long (five minute) video interview with someone, along with
a printed transcript of the tape, and asked students to select the one
sentence that most closely captures the main thrust of the longer talk.
Students made widely different choices, and classroom conversation centered
around why students made the choices they did. The teachers then invited
students to select a sentence that would make the source look more or
less favorable to illustrate the power of the producer in shaping another
And of course the camera
itself, while it captures some aspects of perception, shapes images
just by choosing what to focus on, and by the very look of the image
itself. Camera techniques like the close up, the pan, the angle shot,
the freeze frame, the time lapse and the aerial view all influence our
perceptions of a scene. Lighting, activity within the frame, the pace
and rhythm of the editing all work to influence viewers' emotional responses
to the image. A producer and editor can create feelings of excitement,
exhaustion or paranoia by using many different images of a single scene
to make something look more exciting and interesting. This kind of manipulation
is increasingly necessary because contemporary television programming
has nurtured a set of expectations in viewers that everything be visually
dynamic (Tobias, 1998). Perhaps this is a 'natural' bias of film and
television, or maybe the public has simply been trained to expect that
television present a fast-paced and ever-changing visual display. Often,
a producer steps in front of the camera to adjust reality to make it
more suitable for the demands of production, to create a more compelling
image, to tell a better story. Such practices are common in documentary
production. Manipulation of events in front of the camera is still considered
inappropriate in the context of television news, as exemplified by the
1993 NBC Dateline fake of an explosion in a GM truck to illustrate the
design problem in the vehicle (Pavlik, 1998). When this story was covered
in the news, journalists tended to represent producers' actions in ways
that made them appear lazy, sloppy or unethical.
But re-enactments and the
inclusion of fictional elements in documentary have been part of the
art form since it was invented. When Robert Flaherty created Nanook
of the North, he wanted to get a portrait of life inside an igloo. But
life inside an igloo is dark, too dark for primitive film cameras. So
Flaherty asked the Inuit to build half an igloo and pretend to live
in it, so that he could get the shots of sleeping, eating and getting
dressed that he needed (Marshall, 1963).
Does it matter whether the
producer manipulates events in front of the camera or creates fictional
events to represent real events? As more and more complex manipulation
of time, space and reality become commonplace, people need the skills
to detect this manipulation and understand why it is used in order to
evaluate the messages purporting to represent the world outside our
immediate experience. For young people, the best way to understand the
ethical issues inherent in the manipulation of image, sound and language
is to experiment with their combination and discover the consequences
for themselves (Tyner, 1998).
In one school I visited,
a teacher told me an interesting story of a team of 9th grade students
who were creating a video documentary on the pollution in the pond near
their school. On the day of the taping, students arrived at the pond
but couldn't find any visible examples of trash. One student rooted
around in a nearby trash can and ran up to the teacher. "Could we put
this empty Coke can in the shot?" he asked. "I know that this pond usually
has a lot of garbage in it, but just not today."
The request generated a
major discussion among students in the class, and they asked a number
of questions that the teacher didn't know how to answer. "Don't TV journalists
change things a little bit to get a more dramatic shot?" asked one.
"Would we be lying if we put the can in the pond to illustrate the pollution?"
wondered another student. Another inquired, "Would we be lying if we
found the garbage at the pond's edge but moved the garbage to show all
of it in the same shot?" The teacher recognized the opportunity, and
videotaping stopped as they spent the rest of the period exploring whether
or not an image has to be literally true in order to tell the truth.
This is one of the most difficult and powerful questions in the humanities,
and when students can wrestle with the question in terms of their own
lives and their own actions, it has far more resonance than when the
teacher presents the idea in a lecture.
What Techniques are used
to Enhance the Authenticity of the Message?
As we have shown already,
the word 'real' is rather complex when it comes to the study of film
and television. Documentary film and television derive their power because
the images they provide seem authentic and believable. Writes Postman
(1985):"Television is our cultureís principal mode of knowing
about itself. Therefore -- and this is the critical point -- how television
stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to
be staged." But the concept of 'authenticity' is itself a construction.
As Bill Nichols writes, "Our perception of the real is constructed for
us by codes and conventions." The most common visual codes which communicate
authenticity, including the use of archival footage, the hand-hand camera,
the re-enactment, and the use of time-space conflation, once recognized
by viewers, are easy to spot. Once these are identified, viewers can
make room to consider a wider range of strategies for evaluating a message's
authenticity. For example, viewer may assess the backgrounds and qualifications
of the experts, the experience of the producer, the use of research
evidence, and the internal consistency of the message to evaluate the
believability of a message. It can be an uncomfortable process for teachers
to explore their own assumptions about what facts they ordinarily do
not question (Tyner, 1998). As new approaches to teaching history and
social studies emphasize historical fact as a construction, teachers
are invited to create learning environments where 'history,''data,'and
'information'are concepts which are continually open to critical inquiry
and revision (Davidson and Lytle, 1986).
What are the codes and conventions
that communicate believability? The use of archival film footage is
one of the most common techniques that enhance authenticity, because
the footage encourages us to assume that, because the images are old,
they are true (Nichols, 1993). For example, in In Search of the Edge,
a marvelous 'fake'documentary, the program uses old home movie footage,
with the grainy texture of 1930's newsreel film, to introduce the main
character, Andrea Barnes, a research scientist who purported discovered
that the Earth was flat. The convention of black-and-white archival
footage automatically leads viewers to believe that Andrea Barnes is
a real person. Only by asking the iterative question, "How do you know
what you know?" can students explore the assumptions about believability
that are embedded in the use of this technique.
The public's exposure to
amateur video and hidden camera techniques also have altered our expectations
of what 'real' looks like. People's expectations about what images are
authentic are influenced by camera techniques that include the shaky
camera, the grainy image, the use of time/date stamp. Now, media professionals
have made advertising, documentaries, and even fictional programming
using these techniques, imitating the look of authentic style to grab
viewers' attention. One teacher I know invited students to collect a
range of examples of print, film and video images that used a 'homemade'
visual style-- students came in with examples from commercials for gum,
sneakers, film, and they found examples from news, reality TV, entertainment
news, situation comedies and dramas. The iconography of amateur video
has transcended genres, according to students in this class, because
"the wild movement grabs your attention."
Re-enactments are another
visual convention for communicating authenticity-- an irony not lost
on the high school students who wrestle with the paradox of whether
you can "make something seem more real by faking it." One art teacher
I know builds on the connection between re-enactments and other visual
conventions that artificially mimic the perceptual process -- like perspective
drawing. Inauthentic imagery is widely used in the construction of documentary,
and often extends the emotional power of a work. For example, when making
a program about the middle ages, a producer will have no access to authentic
film or video of the time period and may need to develop creative ways
to produce compelling visual images that convey the mood of the times.
Close examination of documentaries which make use of re-enactments,
for example James Burke's series, The Day the Universe Changed, is a
valuable resource to help students see the creative and complex ways
in which authenticity is constructed using a range of techniques.
Documentaries are at their
most effective when they appear to be fair, neutral and unbiased. Medhurst
(1989) has identified techniques that have been used by producers to
- introduce widely shared
cultural values as a premise that are shown to be violated by the
- use the technique of
historical recall, where several people conjure up from memory details
of the past;
- call attention to details
of place and person, that by their naturalness, bear testimony to
the filmmaker's integrity;
- choose a particular
type of on-camera host, that because of past associations, can assure
the audience of the normative value of the report.
Inviting students to identify
these techniques and to closely examine their usage in the context of
news, documentary and other non-fiction forms changes the nature of
the viewing experience in ways that educators expect will transfer to
the world outside the classroom.
What Techniques are used
to Enhance the Authority of the Message?
Many documentaries use experts
or authorities whose explanations, claims and presentation of information
serve as the substance of the program. "Though striving to appear fair,
neutral and objective, the privileged narrator 'knows' more than the
audience and successfully communicates that superior knowledge through
intonation, interpretation and assertion." (Medhurst, 1989, 187) However,
the documentary also uses a number of techniques to represent the 'expert'visually,
to communicate to the viewer that we are watching an individual whose
ideas have credibility. Producers take advantage of viewers' expectations
about how experts should look, how they should sound, and what kinds
of locations they should be situated, and even how they should look
at the camera. "Our willingness to agree with what is said [by experts
or witnesses] relies to a surprisingly large extent on rhetorical suasion
and documentary convention." The implicit rule in documentaries is 'Trust
those who speak to the camera unless given reason to do otherwiseí"
(Nichols, 1991, 157).
Students can be invited
to look at how experts are framed visually in television news and documentary
production to determine what the 'rules'are the visually representation
of experts. On 60 Minutes, students can identify several kinds of 'head
shots' that are used in framing sources, with an extreme close-up common
when sources are being critically attacked by the hosts.
In another exercise, students
take a non-fiction program and count the demographic characteristics
of the experts. Who gets to be an expert? Experts who are middle-aged,
white, well-educated men are the mainstays of the television news and
documentary programming. When teachers invite students to consider the
reasons why these patterns exist, students respond in various ways.
For some subject areas and topics, they could be the only available
people who knew about the topic. For some producers, the choice of male
experts could be unconscious effort to find 'credible types,' still
associated with white men. Could the dominance of older white males,
in subtle ways, shape people's expectations about who is entitled to
be an expert? This is an essential question to explore with secondary
Exploring the convention
of the 'voice of God'narrator affords another opportunity for critical
analysis. This narrator, always invisible, speaks in a voice that is
flat and unemotional, as though the 'facts' speak for themselves. "The
narrative voices enjoy the privilege that accompanies suspension of
disbelief." (Medhurst, 1989, 62). Often, a teacher can dig up an old
documentary film or tape with a 'voice of God'narrator, and invite students
to listen and to identify the assumptions, values and interpretive language
embedded in the narration.
What Techniques are used
to Involve or Engage the Viewer in the Message?
One of the most important
challenges faced by a producer of a news or documentary program is how
to get the viewer involved in the program. Michael Curtin has called
this 'packaging reality,' the process of giving non-fictional messages
a dramatic shape (Ohmann, 1996). Getting viewers' attention and keeping
their attention is one of the classic concerns of all media makers.
The need to monitor our
environment to search for visual change, especially changes that relate
to sex and aggression has been essential for our survival. Keeping a
keen eye out to monitor sex and aggression is one of those skills that
has been biologically useful to the maintenance of humans as social
creatures. The driving force behind most commercial programming is ratings,
and programs which feature sex, violence, children, animals and UFO's
(the staples of sensationalism) will attract viewers. The Discovery
Channel has found that large animals-- especially sharks and others
that can eat you-- generate the highest ratings.
These five elements embedded
in most commercial television programs have been recognized as highly
effective in attracting and maintaining attention when viewers have
a lot of programming choices. Students can be invited to look for these
elements in top-rated shows, to discover the predictability that is
built in to the construction of a hit program.
Another powerful technique
to attract audience attention is the use of narrative structure. Stories
have long been recognized as the most powerful way to organize ideas.
By focusing on heroes, victims and villains, producers can increase
the likelihood that viewers will be engaged with the topic. However,
the use of typical story elements in non-fiction can also distort and
constrict the complexity of an issue. Nichols (1991, 36) notes:
Most documentary films
also adopt many of the strategies and structures of narrative (though
not necessarily those of the popular entertainment film). ...[M]any"social
problem" fiction films are made with as civic-minded and socially
responsible a purpose as many documentaries. Thus documentary fails
to identify any structure or purpose of its own entirely absent from
fiction or narrative. The terms become a little like our everyday,
but unrigorous, distinction between fruits and vegetables.
When students can appreciate
that both fiction and non-fiction genres are in the business of storytelling,
they gain insight on the social constructedness of messages in the cultural
environment, and appreciate the ways in which people can effectively
communicate to each other.
Television has an important
influence on our perception of reality and our understanding of the
world around us. Because children and young people have so much less
experience with the real 'real world,' it hard for them to make good
judgments about whether the life of a police officer is accurately represented
by Cops . Young people who watch a lot of TV often find that TV's 'reality'seems
more real that their own day-to-day experience. Helping young people
develop reasoning skills about the constructed nature of TV is the essence
of media literacy education. Parents and teachers need to make this
an integral part of a child's education-- both in school at home.
Television producers also
expect that viewers are media literate. Writes TV producer Susan Fales,"The
audience has a responsibility to distinguish between history and fiction,
truth and fantasy. If someone canít tell the difference between
the Civil War and Glory then they deserve to be ignorant." With attitudes
like this well-entrenched among members of the Hollywood community,
viewers need to be increasingly vigilant about deciding what to believe
in among the many choices of programs we see on TV. Most importantly,
we need to reshape the way we use media and technology, so that we are
actively involved in questioning the messages we receive.
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