P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

Narrative Journalism: Subjectivity, No Longer a Dirty Word

Nancy Graham Holm

It started with James Agee and John Hersey. Then came Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and (maybe) the late Hunter S. Thompson, journalists who wanted to tell Americans the truth about themselves beyond the framework of conventional objectivity. It is called narrative journalism, or what some prefer to call literary journalism because it demands a standard and quality of writing found only in literature. Offshoots are ethnographic or feature-travel journalism, reportage that doesn't pretend to be objective but does try to be fair. Narrative journalism is popular in America and in some circles it is reaching messianic dimensions. Pulitzer prize-winning journalists passionately defend their craft and some claim it is only beginning to reach its potential. They reject the notion that narrative needs to be soft and explanatory. "Its greatest unrealized potential is to communicate the hardest news - the crucial questions of social justice. Grim subjects, destitute characters; complicated wrongs need narrative so people will read them and give half a damn."[1]

Narrative journalists have a social conscience and they claim their mission is to remind us what it means to be human. Information alone, they say, does not inform. In the postmodern age, journalists must assign meaning. Participation in events and subsequent interpretation are required to break down the psychological barriers of apathy and cynicism. Numinosity - Jung's term for emotional attention and heightened psychological awareness - is necessary for understanding. A farmer closes the door on his farm for the last time. A baby dies from having an HIV-positive mother. A daughter scores the winning point in a soccer game. A gay couple is officially married. A terminally ill man chooses assisted suicide to end his life. How does it feel? What does it mean for the rest of us? "Report for meaning," is what narrative journalists say. "Reporters shouldn't fear evoking emotion. Show, don't tell is a good rule, but sometimes you have to tell the reader what it means. Detail makes stories come alive. Details are always action, making readers either laugh or cry. Without them, it's just another love story or lost dog story. Reporting is truth, not superficiality, so the reader realizes this story is not like all other lost dog or love stories."[2] Narrative print journalism tells a story in this fashion.

What about the film and video documentary? Practitioners and media analysts will probably disagree on the definition of a documentary film since the concept is always reinventing itself to serve the purposes of its creative producers. Purists claim a documentary must challenge the smug assumptions of the existing establishment and disrupt the status quo. Other documentary makers without a political agenda refuse to apologize for their preoccupation with baboons, orchids or bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Apparently, documentaries come in all sizes and shapes. It was the application of documentary making to television news journalism, however, that introduced a concept loaded with rules. Objectivity was assumed. Objectivity was demanded. This severely separated the traditional point-of-view documentary from the journalistic one.

How does print narrative journalism relate to film/television documentary journalism? The answer: very carefully. It is a growing movement but not without its critics.

To start with, picture-sound journalism is a natural fit for the narrative model. Show me, don't tell me! is the mantra of the TV medium. Visual proof is the aesthetic language. Indeed, it is not surprising that one of America's most celebrated documentaries falls easily into the genre of narrative journalism. Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1976) is an icon of documentary making and doesn't pretend to objective. Indeed, it gives subjective voice to coalminers on strike against Eastover Mining, owned by Duke Power Company. For four years, Kopple lived periodically among the miners and their families and it is clear that her sympathies lie with the miners and not their bosses. Her camera focuses on the desperate lives of people still living in shacks with no indoor plumbing, working at dangerous jobs with little security and few safety rules. The miners are determined to join the United Mine Workers and the company is determined to break the strike with scabs that are even more desperate than the men with jobs. Had CNN or the CBS made the same story, it would have required interviews from "the other side:" Duke Power Company. Putting the employer on camera, however, would hardly advance the story. The exploitation of coalminers doesn't really have a credible defense. Thus, the "other side" would be predictable and add little information except to document greed. But what about other stories that do have another side? Fast-forward to the new century and one finds several examples of this dilemma.

The elderly engineer who wanted to die
German engineer, Ernest-Karl Aschmoneit is 81 years old, in the early advanced stages of Parkinson's disease and wants to end his life. He is a member of Dignitas, a Swiss organization that provides professional "assisted suicide" through a lethal dose of natrium pentobarbital, offered in a glass to be drunk voluntarily. In 2003, Aschmoneit flies to Zurich. He agrees to allow TV journalists to accompany him on his last journey because - as he says on camera - he wants other countries to establish assisted suicide programs and he feels his own story can be used effectively for promotion of this controversial practice. CBS arrived in Zurich with a large consortium of producers, journalists and technicians. Two other TV journalists on the story were Christian Degn and Anders Rostgaard, recent graduates of Danmarks Journalisthøjskole. CBS produced a traditional journalistic story, a critical examination of the issues that was broadcast on its flagship current affairs program, 60 Minutes. Degn's and Rostgaard's treatment of the story was narrative and broadcast on TV2's Dags Dato. A close examination of the story's two different treatments reveals the positive and negative characteristics of narrative journalism.

Top down or eye level? Traditional objective TV journalism is top down or told from outside looking in. The narrative model is eye level or told from inside looking out. In top down stories, the journalist takes responsibility for the story and uses the synchronized interviews in short sound bites only for documentation. Each statement either supports the asserted claim of the journalist or adds color to it by giving an opinion. In Anglo-American broadcasting organizations, the journalist is frequently on camera: walking and talking; serving as a cut-away picture for an interview edit; asking an on-camera question; or talking directly into the lens in a stand-up (called piece-to-camera in Canada or Great Britain). In eye level stories, the issues are told through people - not the journalist - using interviews from a case study to define the issues. The journalist is seldom if ever seen but is often heard in a voice-over used to link segments. Top down stories are relatively objective. Eye level stories are relatively subjective. Top down stories are relatively intellectual. Eye level stories are relatively emotional.

Yes, the narrative model is information-poor, but identification is more important
The mantra of TV journalism is that stories must have three elements: information, identification and fascination. Traditional top down journalism is obsessed with information, believing that it is the very heart of the organism, the animal called journalism. Narrative, eye level journalism subordinates information to identification. Too much information narrative journalists claim, turns people off. In an era that is the so-called Information Age, getting and keeping people's attention is difficult. Narrative journalists believe that once the heart is engaged, however, more information will be sought. Identification is the solution to apathy and comes naturally if stories are told in ways that reinforce our mutual humanity. Ernest-Karl Aschmoneit's story provides us with a dramatic example. Should this 81year-old man take his own life? Or should he suffer the advanced stages of his illness and force himself to cope with a hell-on-earth quality of life until his body finally gives out?

Predictably, CBS's version is high, very high, on the scale for information. The story covers all the obvious ethical issues of which there are many, begging, even screaming to be addressed. Ernest-Karl Aschmoneit is introduced early as the case study but he gets only 50% of screen time. Instead, attention quickly shifts to the founder and director of Dignitas, Ludwig A. Minelli who evaluates all candidates for assisted suicide. The journalist questions his competence and gets him to admit that he makes judgment on instinct. Minelli claims to have no doubts about what he is doing: "Ah, it is not knowing," he says. "It is feeling, and that is much better than knowing." As to doubts, he says, "I have no bad dreams. I do not wake up with bad ideas about what I'm doing." Does that give him a sense of power? "It has nothing to do with power. It's just humanity. Helping people with pains."

Then we hear from psychiatrist Thomas Schlaepfer, a specialist in depression who is not opposed to assisted suicide but is critical of the way Dignitas operates. "If somebody flies into Zurich Airport, is brought into an interview for an hour and prescribed medication, that's totally wrong," he says. "That's ethically wrong. Legally, it might be OK in Swiss law, but ethically it's wrong." Schlaepfer says it is "totally impossible" to find out in a brief visit or two whether someone is of sound mind.

The most serious question facing Dignitas, however, concerns mentally ill people like Walter Wittwer, a schizophrenic. For 10 years, Wittwer was a member of another assisted suicide group that wouldn't allow him to take his life because he was mentally ill. Then, Wittwer joined Dignitas and three months later, he was dead. Minelli argues that mentally ill people have the same right to take their own lives as others: "You can't say and you shouldn't say that mentally ill people should not have human rights." Then, Helmut Eichenburger, a retired urologist who prescribes the overdose for Dignitas' members, says emotions matter. "A lot of people feel lonely and they say: Well, I have nothing more. I have no relatives, I have no friends, no life. Why am I still living? That's when I say that the dying has begun." The debate continues when psychiatrist Schlaepfer, says that suicidal tendencies are often a symptom of mental illness and can be treated. "In this office," he says, "many people said: I'm totally depressed. I want to end my life and weeks later this opinion was changed." Finally, we hear from public prosecutor, Andreas Brunner who believes the law is dangerously unregulated, giving him little room to act. "These days, everyone - even you or me, we - can make assisted suicides," says Brunner, noting that nothing - not even a medical degree - is required to start an organization that helps people kill themselves. After this discussion of the ethical issues, Ernest-Karl is given the overdose of barbiturate, which he drinks behind a closed door and within an hour he is dead. We see his body in a body bag as it is removed from the clinic.

CBS's version is loaded with information. TV journalism students who see the 60 Minutes version rely on the high information content to keep themselves emotionally detached. The result is a substantive discussion of medical ethics, courage, illness and cognitive decision-making. After screening Degn's and Rostgaard's version, however, the majority of students sit in stunned silence. Some literally weep and a brief break is often required before resuming class. Reactions are mixed. Emotions are high. Some students are deeply touched and impressed with the story telling. Others insist that the Danish version is not really journalism. "It's not balanced!" they claim. "It's an advocacy story!" This perception is easy to understand, since in Degn's and Rostgaard's narrative version, the information component is, indeed, minimal. Only the basic facts are given to establish context. Ernest-Karl Aschmoneit is the focus and the only other interview in the story is from Ludwig A. Minelli who vigorously defends his organization with animated indignation. In the Danish version, there are no critics of Minelli's role or of Digitas' procedures. There is no in-depth discussion about depression and its relationship to being of sound mind. Thus the Danish version is information poor, in spite of the fact it is two minutes longer than the CBS story.

In relation to identification, however, Christian Degn and Anders Rostgaard win an unofficial Emmy. We meet Ernest-Karl up close and learn a lot about him. He is not a religious man and has no belief in an afterlife. He had a good career as a mechanical engineer and a happy marriage but he is not sentimental and no longer gets inspiration from looking at old photographs. He describes his present life, how he can't sleep and how he dreads the progression of his disease. His intelligence is obvious and there is no problem understanding why he worries about the indignity of losing his mental faculties He is a sweet man, unexpectedly charming and thoroughly engaging. He "quacks" with the ducks at the pond. He describes how he has cleaned his apartment, put out the trash and placed the key through the mail slot. He talks about the need to carry a suitcase in order to avoid suspicion from the authorities that he worries might try to stop him. In astonishingly good humor, he meets friends at Hamburg Airport to say goodbye and jokes with the ticket clerk who wishes him a good journey, totally unaware why this man is traveling to Zurich. In Degn's and Rostgaard's eye level narrative version, the viewer gets to experience Ernest-Karl's decision. When he drinks the pentobarbital, we have personal reactions to his decision. In fact, identification is so high, the viewer simply suspends critical judgment about the issues the story raises, which is precisely why narrative journalism is controversial. Did 81 year-old Ernest-Karl Aschmoneit have the right to commit suicide? Does society have the right to prevent it? Is it humane to make people live longer than they want to? Who decides? And which version of journalism gets us closer to the issues?

Narrative journalism requires ethical compromises
The case study is the blood and breath of the narrative model. Without a strong case study, the story cannot work effectively. Ernest-Karl Aschmoneit was perfect and one can well imagine the journalists' excitement when they heard about him. "Casting the character" is what narrative journalists call it, and it requires time and luck. New York Times Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Isabel Wilkerson took several months to find the "right family" to tell her story about crack cocaine addiction in a Chicago tenement neighborhood. [3] Television production companies seldom have the luxury for such a search and this presents a serious risk. One recent experience with a TV graduation project at DJH illustrates this well. The story was about a hospice and what it is like to die in a supportive environment. The student journalists found two case studies and got permission to follow them to their death. They spent many days at the hospice but neither of the case studies "cooperated." One person's health improved and he was sent home. The second case study lingered at the edge of death until long after deadline. The story "failed" and the students didn't get the grade they had hoped for. A good portion of the examination was spent talking about the ethical compromises implicit in the choice of their story.

Getting the cooperation of the case study requires skill and patience. At a conference in Århus, Isabel Wilkerson's lengthy and detailed description of how she persuaded her chosen family to cooperate resulted in three pages of note taking. She encouraged narrative journalists to find someone in crisis but to wait until just the right moment to ask for their participation. She drew a diagram to show when the person would be most receptive. Persuasion? Or manipulation? In the final analysis, if the story can shed light in a dark corner of society that results in the improvement of lives, manipulation might be forgiven.

Surely manipulative journalists can get what they want, but what if the very best case study is someone with low intelligence? Is their permission and willingness to cooperate ethically valid? In 1998, a documentary was produced in Denmark to examine parental rights vs. the rights of a newborn child. Er du mors lille dreng? (or Born to Lose in the English sub-titled version) by Lars Høj became a showcase example of narrative, eye-level journalism. Anni gives birth to Jørn. The baby's father, Bjarne is present and in the first three minutes of the documentary, they look just like any new family. Soon it is painfully obvious, however, that Anni and Bjarne are mentally sub-standard. The documentary follows the baby's first four months and we watch Anni and Bjarne angrily interact with patient, long suffering Danish health workers who try to teach them now to nurture their little son. They cannot take proper care of their baby, however, and for the better part of an hour, the viewer watches and cringes as Jørn's development steadily deteriorates. Screening this documentary gets mixed reactions. Some viewers like it very much. Others say they feel like voyeurs, watching immature, unpleasant people without dignity or awareness stumble through life while threatening the well being of an infant. Watching Er du mors lille dreng? is not easy viewing. It is, however, far more effective in getting its message across than a traditional top-down documentary with a string of taking heads discussing incompetent parenting. The ethical question, however, haunts the consciences of ethical journalists. Does it matter that Anni's and Bjarne's inhumane and emotionally stunted behavior is put on show? Did they know what they were saying yes to when they agreed to cooperate? Does it matter?

Narrative journalism in print is not necessarily invasive. The information might be in the details but the details are described in words. A TV camera with a microphone, however, are unavoidably invasive. If the information is in the details, it means that the details of someone's life must be photographed and recorded. Does the person who is the case study case really understand what it means to allow a TV camera crew into one's life? Some case study candidates will say yes to this invasion because they love the attention. Others will ruin the project by "walking, " often at the last minute. Many narrative TV stories have been hijacked by case studies that change their minds about participation. Can we blame them?

Some broadcast journalists are not likely to adopt the narrative model. The BBC, as one example, does not use it and there is little evidence to suggest this might change. Nevertheless, its value for communication is obvious. It creates significance by providing a framework for authentic experience on an emotional level. In today's crush of information, the narrative model calls attention to issues that demand humane solutions. One can only hope that its use will be judicious and fair without too many ethical compromises.

1 Katherine Boo, Pulitzer prize winning journalist from the Washington Post, quoted in "Overview: Aboard the Narrative Train" by Bill Kirtz. Poynteronline, www.poynter.org.

2 Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer winning journalist. Ibid.

3 From a presentation by Wilkerson, October 10, 2003 at a conference on narrative journalism, sponsored by Center for Journalistik og Efteruddannelse, Århus.

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