The Place of Web Documentaries in Journalism

What is the place of web documentaries in journalism? Why don’t or why shouldn’t web documentaries have a place in journalism? What do we understand/mean by ‘a place’? Who are the actors in this struggle? These are but some of the questions going through my mind as I type out this response out.

Let me begin by trying to define journalism in my own way. Journalism is meant to inform, so it’s about getting information and presenting it to a local (and increasingly global) population of readers. Presentable information are mainly those in the form of stories, facts and figures, verbatim as in speeches and interviews. Such information is held up to certain standards of accuracy, ethics, timeliness and so on — journalistic standards. Journalism also implies the playing of roles, there is the journalist and on the other side, the reader/viewer/radio-listener. My understanding of journalism is in many ways shaped by the traditional notion of journalism as well as by the many contesting notions that we the tech-savvy generation are increasingly exposed to (whether consciously or unconsciously).

So should web documentaries have a place in journalism? (which implies yet another question – does it fit the traditional notion of journalism? Or is the notion of journalism completely redefined?) For the moment, I have to hold off this question yet again to firstly get a sense of what web documentaries themselves are.

According to Katerina Cizek, web documentaries represent the intersection of journalism, digital media, an issue e.g. healthcare and the community (the immediate local community involved in that issue as well as communities outside it e.g. the wider world). Unlike traditional documentaries, web documentaries aim for greater engagement and participation by communities i.e the community around which the documentary is centred as well as the participating community out there (the viewers, readers etc). For the former group, it aims to give them a voice, to have them tell their own stories, in ethnographic terminology, to tell a story from an emic perspective. For the latter group, it aims not to be a dictatorial voice telling how and what to understand. Rather, it aims to create a more ‘authentic’ experience whereby the viewer/watching participant develops his own understanding, his own connection (without the help of a voice from nowhere) with the featured community. Cizek moreover notes that web documentaries seek not just to create the conditions for individual understanding but also to create political action, to create change. In many ways, the ‘journalism’ of web documentaries radically contests the notions of journalism that the industry has long held onto. Personally, I do not think it is not a case of what place should web documentaries have in the current notion of journalism but when the revolutionary paradigm shift in journalism is going to take place. It is hard to say if the revolution is currently on-going (after all, we have not made a clean break from traditional notions of journalism) but I think it may be the case that certain aspects of the new paradigm are evident. It will be more participatory, an ongoing dialogue, journalism will re-connect with the community and so on.

Other than HIGHRISE, I watched a few other web documentaries such as

http://www.thanatorama.com/us/?#/about/ and

http://nyminute.arte.tv/en/serie-106/

One thing struck me however when watching them, though these documentaries seek to build communities yet their community building efforts are somewhat limited. Looking around HIGHRISE, I tried finding an FB page for them to no avail. Not to mention, it occurred to me that the documentary could be more participatory by perhaps starting up a section for viewers to post up their own video responses of their own stories about urban living. I would argue this extends the documentary, it keeps the issues of urban living current and the growing community together. Why limit the ‘community’ documentary to just these 13 cities and 49 stories?

I guess we still need to work out the new paradigm of journalism that web documentaries undoubtedly deserve a place in. However, to get there, I believe web documentary makers like Cizek have to keep pushing the boundaries further and further.

**Just another thought: why do web documentaries need their own separate website? If documentary makers are truly interested in building communities around these issues, why not work an arrangement with social media platforms which already have stable communities and provide a stable platform for new ones to form?

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