What Role Do Documentaries Play in Conversations About Race?

Posted on October 12, 2020

The study engaged more than 200 participants from U.S. cities.

Fill 54 Created with Sketch. CMSI Study: Breaking the Silence

From "Always in Season"

The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) released a study entitled “Breaking the Silence: How Documentaries Can Shape the Conversation on Racial Violence in America and Create New Communities,” which shows that in a time of escalating media distrust and expanding news deserts, Americans view documentary storytelling as a trustworthy information source and a driver of civic dialogue on social challenges such as racial violence. The study engaged more than 200 participants in seven geographically and politically diverse U.S. cities located in close proximity to those news deserts.

The CMSI study was conducted in early 2020, prior to the recent surge in global conversations on systemic racism and police violence, and the participatory research project focused on communities’ responses to the ITVS-supported film Always in Season, which explores the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans and connects this form of historic racial terrorism to racial violence today.

“Intimate, truthful independent documentaries play a unique role in fostering civil public dialogue around complex social problems. It’s meaningful, in these divisive times, to understand the richness of community conversations around racial justice that took place when people were able to watch Always in Season together,” said Caty Borum Chattoo, executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact and a co-PI on the study, along with American University professor and ITVS board member Patricia Aufderheide and lead author David Conrad, CMSI post-doctoral fellow.

Key findings include:

Documentaries are reporting critical stories on racial violence and other social issues that local and national media are overlooking.

Not only did participants across the country say they feel stories of interest to them are being missed by local and mainstream news outlets, but they also expressed a desire for sources of information that presents more context and details than they often find in mainstream news coverage today. The documentary, they say, is capable of addressing these needs.

Documentaries are helping people build a sense of shared community solidarity.

Participants frequently pointed to the details, historical facts, and balance of the documentary as its most trustworthy attributes, but they also expressed feeling like these contextual details were impactful because they were embedded into a long-form narrative that transported, engaged, and emotionally involved them in ways that other forms of media do not. As a result, they said, it helped them to make meaning of the facts and to better understand, trust, and connect with the implications of the facts being presented.

Documentaries are effective tools for community building.

Participants across the country expressed the feeling that having a chance to come together with other members of their community and discuss issues important to them was helpful and rare. The community screenings provided people with a space to share ideas and engage in dialogue with each other in a real community environment. And participants say the live screening events have the power to bring people together in a way that is lasting, with organizers saying that community members have continued reaching out to them in the days following the screening about other ways that they can convene.

Documentary-based community events are disrupting cultures of silence, provoking change and helping people to create new communities.

Participants frequently expressed the feeling that the act of watching the documentary and discussing it with their community compelled them "to confront" rather than just "learn” or “think about" the realities and experiences of racial violence in their community. People spoke about cultures of silence in their community around racial violence and other social issues. In confronting these realities together, community discussions moved toward provocations, challenges, calls for change, meaning making, and shared expressions to play more active roles in shaping their communities. In this way, the documentary planted seeds of further learning, further action, and further self-awareness – all of which were then further developed through the community conversations that followed.

You can read the full report here: CMSI -- Breaking the Silence Always in Season Report (Sept. 2020)

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