Documentaries can be wonderful. They bring visual stories from the real world into our homes. With interesting shots and anecdotes, documentaries can help us take the time to consider interesting topics we don’t necessarily get to think about every day.
But at the same time, we always have to ask ourselves, “Is this real?”
Unfortunately, we can’t always trust the information that is broadcasted to us. The Discovery Channel alone broadcasts material that deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction, as Animal Planet’s two documentaries about mermaids led many viewers to believe mermaids are real (how would we know they weren’t true, accurate documentaries if we took them at face value?). In fact, the man behind them, Charlie Foley, was promoted last June to executive vice president of Discovery Communications’s Original Content Group.
It is harder to tell these days. Not only can the amount of information competing for our attention be exhausting to think about, but the competitors clearly don’t always value integrity while doing so. Many national news channels are openly politically biased, using conservative or liberal leanings to increase ratings rather than accurately report information free of editorial commentary. We shouldn’t have to read press releases to confirm information, but we actually do.
Granted, a documentary is a constructed statement no matter what. Writers create narration and editors use the shots and pacing that they think is best. There is always some kind of bias, even with the best of intentions.
Therefore, it is crucial whenever we watch a documentary to know what nuggets of truth we can glean from what we see within the context of the facts we already know.
It can seem overwhelming to think about, especially when we just want to flick on the TV after a long day, but verifying the accuracy of what we watch is a lot easier than it sounds, and can eventually become second-nature—before, during and after you actually watch a documentary.
Here are five very easy strategies to help you get the most out of your documentaries and ultimately help give you an eye for finding the best ones.
1. Pay attention to the themes
While watching a documentary, keep your eyes and ears peeled for the themes the people talk about and what ideas they focus on. If you’re watching a political documentary, who are the good guys, who are the bad guys and why? Are both sides given equal and logical criticism? Is any point of view assumed from the beginning? If it’s a nature documentary you’re watching, how does it talk about the animals involved?
The themes of a documentary can go a long way in telling you the purpose of a documentary, which in turn can give you great preliminary hints as to the legitimacy of the information you’re getting—is it meant to be informative or to make you feel a certain way? What does it want you to know?
2. Watch and listen between the lines
The music and shots are also very important, regardless of what is being said. The kind of music you hear at certain times and how the shots make something look cue you for what you’re supposed to feel, identifying good things and bad things for you without you even having to think anything. It can be very tempting to be sucked in by it if you’re not on guard. For instance, dreary music can create negative feelings, as can close shots that linger on a frowning person.
3. Do the conversations make sense?
Listen to what the people in the documentary are saying and ask yourself the following questions:
If you were debating a point with someone or trying to accurately introduce a new concept, would you say the things the people in the documentary are saying?
Do the points in the conversation flow to you and make sense? Is Point B a logical progression from Point A?
4. Check the sources of information
This is a great thing to do, especially when you’re bored. If you’re sitting at the computer and cant’ think of anything to do, why not look up the points the documentary made, or even the people interviewed in the documentary?
There is a multitude of information out there, but many university websites give great tips on finding reliable information online. Another great website about this can be found here.
Besides being a great excuse to get out of the house for a few hours, the library is also a great place to go for looking up information. Not only do libraries have books on many topics, but many of them are also gateways to in-depth, accurate electronic resources that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to at home without a library card.
5. Look up the filmmakers behind the documentary—or who funded it
Although arguably the most complicated thing to try on this list, this point can make a world of difference in gauging the quality of a documentary, even more so than the others. It is both the most fundamental and most behind-the-scenes factor of any documentary.
The creators or financial backers of a film will usually be involved with how the subject matter is presented. For instance, since the documentary “2016: Obama’s America” was crafted in large part by conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, you can bet with a fair amount of certainty that it would be more likely to be critical of President Obama at the outset, whereas a documentary like “Blackfish,” which was partially backed by CNN, would probably be more sympathetic to the plights of killer whales right from the get-go.
There’s nothing stopping you
No matter what its point of view, every documentary will try its best to get its points across as strongly as possible, both to keep you watching and to seem credible. However, the very nature of a documentary—creating a story from reality—means that certain points will be highlighted and others left on the cutting room floor. The best documentaries try to minimize interferences from the filmmakers as much as possible, but others intentionally mislead.
If you keep the above five strategies in mind (and these are just five), you will consistently be more prepared, for even when you see a documentary that is done wrong, you can still learn from it.
Even more encouraging, these skills can be applied to most forms of media around you.
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