Higher Truth or Just the Facts? Hell and Back Again


CSJ-13-0048.0 This case examines the challenges facing a news documentary maker who wants to create a film that conveys a psychological truth without resorting to cinematic techniques. Documentarians make constant decisions as they edit their raw footage about what to include, exclude and emphasize. Nearly all at some point have to ask whether it is dishonest to alter the literal truth in order to communicate a “higher” truth or complex story.

In 2010, photojournalist and videographer Danfung Dennis was wrapping up production of a documentary about US Marines deployed to Afghanistan, and their readjustment to civilian life. He focused on a wounded Marine sergeant, Nathan Harris. A central challenge was how to integrate war footage with that shot in the US. Dennis and his editor, Fiona Otway, often resorted to flashbacks, but in general tried to avoid techniques associated with fictional movies. But early screenings of the nearly-completed film revealed an unsympathetic Harris; his erratic behavior threatened to alienate viewers if they didn’t clearly understand that Harris was heavily medicated for pain. But how to convey that without a narrator?

Use this case to discuss the degree to which technology has made ethical decisions in documentary filmmaking harder, or easier. Ask students when a “higher” truth might trump the literal use of footage? How can documentarians convey the mental state of their subjects? Is it correct for news documentaries to draw on techniques developed by Hollywood, or cinema verité, or “direct cinema”? The case also raises for discussion the issue of graphic images. Where does the line fall between showing the unvarnished truth, and alienating the viewer with ghastly images, especially when reporting on violence and war? Is it ethical for Dennis and Otway to imply, through use of manufactured sound and fades, a particular mental state they cannot guarantee Harris experienced at the time?

This case can be used in a course/class about journalism ethics; documentary; war reporting; editorial decision-making; or film editing.