Editorial direction of documentary television is increasingly challenged in an economically insecure and digitally driven environment where production deadlines and competitive pressures determine editorial content. My research on the Frankenbite examine how the editing of documentary television is increasingly following reality television’s dictate to entertain instead of inform, and how the real and truth fall victim to the demand to “tell stories,” and how that dictate is forcing editors to compromise their ethical stands. A frankenbite allows editors to manufacture story efficiently and dramatically by extracting the salient elements or single words of a statement, interview or exchange into a revealing confession or argument, creating drama and conflict where there was none before. I have build an inventory of factual program editors’ experiences and opinions, based on interviews with 70 such editors in reality and documentary television in North America and Europe, the ethical dilemmas of editorial decisions they make, the context in which this happens, their sense of narrative coherence as a guide to storytelling, and their opinions about their responsibilities and loyalties.
The central theme of the book pivots on the premise that human beings have been attracted to story throughout recorded history. Narrative is essential to what it means to be human; an engagement in life takes the shape of a story. This understanding of human interaction frames our lives as stories lived out while interacting with others who too are living out their stories. From a narrative perspective, the way individuals communicate and perform daily actions is inherently ethical because of an inclination to guard and support particular properties that give meaning to life—the narratives that shape our moral imagination, which is universally understood.
The pervasiveness of television may to be grounded in its ability to portray human stories. However, in the medium of television, the formative forces of most of these narratives are increasingly grounded in story formulas achieved through market analysis, replacing complex poetics with a succession of superficial tropes. On a societal scale, there is a growing misappropriation of the individual story to serve corporate interest. The emphasis on sentiment and the careful attempt to involve the viewer’s feelings is part of a larger trend in mass media where producers seek an emotional investment in their stories or products, knowing the affective connection is what drives the viewer to become a consumer in the marketplace. Those narratives might be well constructed, yet they are really anti-stories, as Amnon Buchbinder calls them. My inquiry centres on the question if television editors, trained as (authentic) storytellers, are increasingly forced to compromise their professional ethics to build what constitutes anti-story in the practice of their craft.
I first came to consider ethics in post-production as a pertinent subject for academic research while working in traditional documentary production. During that time, I began to reflect on the characteristics of the profession and the implications of a changing television industry. It was a personal experience that served as the “inciting incident” to motivate me to examine my own participation in the documentary television industry that ultimately inspired me to embark on this academic inquiry. As a result of my experience, I began to research whether colleagues faced similar decisions in the edit room. Had they also made changes that resulted in a degree of inaccuracy or manipulation, and, if so, did they reflect on the consequences of those decisions?
As the hybridization of information and entertainment (aka “fake news”, “alternative facts”) become more pronounced in mass media, the need for media literacy—the ability to decode the real from the dramatized—in factual programs has become more urgent. My research includes the questioning and radical re-evaluation of the established genre distinctions, as the lines between non-fiction and fiction are increasingly blurred. We may well be in a time of change as essential as the transition from oral to written storytelling.
PROMPT: PERSONAL TESTIMONY: PROBLEMS WITH STORY