In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Documentary and Communication

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works

Communication Documentary and Communication
Caty Borum Chattoo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0207


Documentary is a mediated storytelling genre and communication practice shaped by the creative freedom of scripted entertainment storytelling, alongside aspects of the research, reporting practices, and outputs of journalism. Documentary, therefore, is both an artistic expression and product, as well as reflection of truth. In this context, it can also be understood as a mechanism for communication in pursuit of social change and engagement with the public about topical issues. Documentary storytelling in the United States and around the world is often produced by independent filmmakers who are external to the decision-making boundaries of formal media institutions. Independence permits often-unseen perspectives to be reflected in the culture and enables community-centered storytellers and collaboration. Documentary production practices and audience accessibility have evolved in the digital era and consequently so has the potential for nonfiction storytelling to actively engage publics. As contemporary audiences are able to access documentaries in theaters, TV, online streaming outlets, and social media channels, documentary storytelling plays an influential persuasive role, shaping public opinion and spotlighting social issues. Documentary is often leveraged as an advocacy communication mechanism to raise awareness and advocate for change on challenging social problems and issues. Historically, documentary scholarship has resided primarily within film journals. However, as the professional ecosystem around documentary storytelling as communication mechanism has evolved, and as documentaries are more readily available in the entertainment marketplace, scholars across disciplines increasingly examine documentary influence and practices related to public engagement. This article is not an exhaustive examination of documentary storytelling as an art form, nor does it attempt to present all documentary genres; rather, it locates documentary intentionally within communication practice and available scholarship, while including core principles of documentary as a media genre. The work also acknowledges that documentary genres—within the context of communication and public engagement—are not mutually exclusive. This article offers an overview of documentary as a communication practice and source of contemporary societal influence. It does so by presenting relevant literature within three broad themes that reveal documentary as communication practice, not simply documentary as entertainment or art form: cultural context and production of documentary, contemporary documentary genres as communication and advocacy, and documentary influence and impact, which includes both media effects and grassroots community engagement. Across genres of documentary as communication, legal and ethical challenges are crucial, given the centrality of both arenas to production, distribution, and audience reception of artistic reflections of real life.

Foundational Works

Foundational works chronicle the form’s history, grounded in both civic engagement and entertainment storytelling in the early 20th century. These seminal texts also present documentary’s creative production elements, contexts of production and distribution, and role in democracy. Aufderheide 2007 presents key definitions and documentary history and forms in the context of public education, engagement, and civil society. Barnouw 1993 presents a seminal historical texts about documentary’s evolution in the 20th century. Curran Bernard 2011 focuses on the creative decision-making process and elements involved in making documentaries. McLane 2012 updates documentary history through the digital era and articulates contemporary genres. Nash, et al. 2014 and Winston, et al. 2017 examine documentary in the digital era, with emerging web-based contexts of collaborative production and public influence. Waugh 1984 offers a seminal articulation of a particular documentary genre—the committed documentary—with an overt social justice aim. In Nichols 1991 and Nichols 2010, film theorist Bill Nichols provides an essential understanding of documentary genres and societal influence.

  • Aufderheide, P. 2007. Documentary: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Aufderheide grounds this comprehensive yet succinct overview of documentary’s defining characteristics and the history, major influences, and ethics within the form’s function in democracy. In light of philosopher John Dewey’s notion of the public, which holds power to account for the sake of the public interest, Aufderheide posits that documentary plays a crucial observational and organizing role.

  • Barnouw, E. 1993. Documentary: A history of the non-fiction film. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The classic seminal historical text on documentary storytelling, this work covers the earliest foundation, history, and evolution of the genre from the late 1890s through the pre-cursor decade to the Internet age.

  • Curran Bernard, S. 2011. Documentary storytelling. Burlington, VT: Focal.

    Focuses on producing documentary film, targeted for creative filmmakers or communication scholars interested in the elements of the form. This is useful for understanding the practical creation of documentary stories and interviewing subjects as well as presenting the major areas of creative decision making involved in producing an artistic rendering of real life.

  • McLane, B. 2012. A new history of documentary film. New York: Bloomsbury.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781501340222

    McLane provides a comprehensive, chronologically ordered deep history of international and US documentary from its early days to the advent of video and eventually digital filmmaking. This work also offers a necessary framework to distinguish styles of documentary storytelling, in parallel with relevant history.

  • Nash, K., C. Hight, and C. Summerhayes, eds. 2014. New documentary ecologies: Emerging platforms, practices and discourses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    This edited volume is a helpful framework to bring scholars and creative producers into the evolving ecology of documentary production, collaboration, and influence in the digital era. Documentary thinkers and practitioners consider emergent genres, such as the present-day activist documentary and interactive documentaries, collaborative documentary practices, and ethics.

  • Nichols, B. 1991. Representing reality: Issues and concepts in documentary. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Documentary film theorist Nichols presents the foundation of documentary film structures, styles, and underlying core concepts in this classic volume. He focuses this explication around concepts of evidence (presenting knowledge about the world, underlying social value, and advocacy) and discourse about the world: that is, the ability of documentary film to spark and engage conversations about a range of civic and historical issues.

  • Nichols, B. 2010. Introduction to documentary. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Theorist Nichols presents a comprehensive foundation and explication of documentary’s contemporary genres, ethical considerations, and history, moving from the analog era to the digital age. This provides a conceptual framework to understand the various styles of documentary storytelling. Notably, this volume presents John Grierson’s well-used and enduring definition of documentary as “creative treatment of actuality” (p. 6).

  • Waugh, T. 1984. Show us life: Toward a history and aesthetics of the committed documentary. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

    Film scholar Thomas Waugh characterized a particular documentary genre, the “committed documentary,” by recognizing its overt social justice overtones. This anthology connects the founding definitions of documentary with the evolution of the form as a mechanism for social critique. Although the term “committed documentary” has semantically evolved into new contemporary references to documentary as communication and advocacy, this is a valuable foundation.

  • Winston, B., G. Vanstone, and C. Wang. 2017. The act of documenting: Documentary film in the 21st century. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

    Presents a contemporary explication of documentary practice in the digital era. The work presents evidence about documentary’s shift in production (for filmmakers) and its potential effects in the digital media age with greater potential for reaching new voices beyond the traditionally dominant ones.

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