As the term “fake news” gets thrown around recklessly and clickbait headlines spread misinformation, many people have found it hard to find facts from reliable sources. Perhaps people should turn to documentaries. In a new study from The Center for Media & Social Impact, Americans view documentary storytelling as a trustworthy information source and a touchstone for civic dialogue on social challenges such as racism and police violence
The study, “Breaking the Silence: How Documentaries Can Shape the Conversation on Racial Violence in America and Create New Communities”, was conducted in 2020 before the world saw a surge in discourse on systemic racism. The participatory research focused on the responses to the ITVS co-production Always in Season directed by Jacqueline Olive. The docu debuted at Sundance in 2019 and premiered on Independent Lens on PBS. Always in Season explores the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans and connects this form of historic racial terrorism to racial violence today.
The study engaged more than 200 participants in seven geographically and politically diverse U.S. cities located in close proximity to news deserts. According to the study, these participants found Always in Season as a “true portrayal of a real problem.”
“I am heartened that this study finds that Always in Season is helping communities to break down cultures of silence around racial violence,” said Olive in the foreward of the study. “Not only has the film encouraged people to speak out and become more conscious about lynching and related issues of racism, it has also provoked people to actively confront them in many ways.”
Caty Borum Chattoo, executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact and a co-PI on the study as well as AU professor Patricia Aufderheide and lead author David Conrad, CMSI post-doctoral fellow said in joint statement: “Intimate, truthful independent documentaries play a unique role in fostering civil public dialogue around complex social problems. It’s meaningful, in these divisive times, to understand the richness of community conversations around racial justice that took place when people were able to watch Always in Season together.”
According to the study, documentaries are reporting critical stories on racial violence and other social issues that local and national media are overlooking and they help people build a sense of shared community solidarity.
The study brings to light the vast library of documentaries about racial violence, racial bias, injustice, broken prison systems, political corruption and police brutality that have been in existence for decades. In addition to Always in Season, we have seen recent docus that shine a glaring light on these issues including Dawn Porter’s John Lewis: Good Trouble, Liz Garbus & Lisa Cortes’ All In: The Fight for Democracy, Garrett Bradley’s Time, Muta’Ali’s Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn as well as Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli B. Despres’ The Fight. Past documentaries that also bolster this study are Ava DuVernay’s 13th, David France’s The Death and Live of Marsha P. Johnson, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets?, Showtime’s 16 Shots, HBO’s Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland as well as the docuseries Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story and Time: The Kalief Browder Story.
Read the full “Breaking the Silence” study here.