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Journal of Mass Media Ethics:


Exploring Questions of Media
Morality
Publication details, including instructions for
authors and subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hmme20

Ethical Responsibilities to
Subjects and Documentary
Filmmaking
Ellen M. Maccarone

Gonzaga University
Published online: 12 Aug 2010.

To cite this article: Ellen M. Maccarone (2010) Ethical Responsibilities to Subjects and
Documentary Filmmaking, Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media
Morality, 25:3, 192-206, DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2010.497025
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08900523.2010.497025

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Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 25:192206, 2010


Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0890-0523 print/1532-7728 online
DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2010.497025

Ethical Responsibilities to Subjects and


Documentary Filmmaking
Ellen M. Maccarone
Gonzaga University

Documentary filmmakers have ethical responsibilities to the subjects of their films.


Specifically, they have an ethical responsibility to prevent harm to their subjects
if they are in a position to do so, even harm not directly related to being in
the film. Justification for this comes from documentarys status as a practice
of a social institution and can be supported by Utilitarian and Kantian considerations, as well as the Aristotelian discussion of practices. Three films, The
Thin Blue Line, Dope Sick Love, and Born Into Brothels, are used as examples for the requirement to prevent harm to subjects. These examples cover several different possibilities of how documentary filmmakers behave concerning
the welfare of their subjects and are evaluated in light of ethical considerations
offered.

The relationship of ethical considerations to film practice is one of the most


important yet at the same time one of the most neglected topics in the documentary
field. (Alan Rosenthal, 1998)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, film scholars cited the renewed interest
in documentaries by the general public. The critical acclaim and commercial
success of several documentaries drove this observation. These films included
The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, and Shoah.1 More recently, documentaries
such as March of the Penguins, Super Size Me, Bowling for Columbine, and
the slew of 9/11-related films have kept the public interest in documentaries
high.2 Yet philosophers took little note. However, as new documentaries emerge
Correspondence should be sent to Ellen M. Maccarone, Assistant Professor of Philosophy,
Gonzaga University, 502 E Boone Avenue, Spokane, WA 99258. E-mail: maccarone@gonzaga.edu

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and ethical questions arise, it is no longer something that moral philosophers


can ignore. The ethical questions involved in documentary filmmaking are many
and have largely been ignored or downplayed by both film scholars and moral
philosophers.
This article is not intended to provide a list of dos and donts but rather to
consider some behaviors that are morally significant in the making of documentary films. Bill Nichols, a film scholar and documentarian, says the absence of
a substantial body of work on [ethical issues of film] strikes [me] as remarkable
(Nichols, 1991). Brian Winston, also a film scholar and producer, says the legal
framework is too loose to compel or even much encourage ethical practice in
documentary filmmaking (Winston, 1995).
Understanding what a documentary film is and what members of the general
public have come to expect from documentaries is needed for this discussion.
The definition offered here is intentionally from the laypersons perspective, so
documentary practitioners might find the definition problematic in some ways.
Yet the account given here should be sufficient for the discussion. Once we have
an account of what documentaries are, we can start thinking about the ethical
responsibilities filmmakers have, particularly to their subjects, something James
Linton says involves questions crucial enough to be addressed even though
difficult and messy (Linton, 1976). The focus here is on the specific ethical
responsibility to prevent harm to subjects.
The tasks of this project are three. First, to give some ideas of what makes
a film a documentary film, many of which will be commonsensical to the
layperson, although, not uncontroversial. Second, to give a sketch of what part
of an ethical standard for documentary filmmaking should look like, focusing
on the question of harm to subjects. There are many other ethical dimensions
worthy of addressing that cannot be treated here. Justification will be offered
related to documentarys status as a practice of a social institution. While doing
this, some moral evaluations of the making of some documentaries that either
are exemplary or particularly bad will be given as examples. Third, to show
the practical usefulness of the ethical considerations presented and that from a
variety of ethical perspectives similar conclusions regarding the moral evaluation
of behaviors are reached.

WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY?
To begin, let us consider what a documentary is from the perspective of a
potential audience member, not from the perspective of filmmaker, film scholar,
art critic, or philosopher of art. In doing so, most think of feature-length films
and television films that are attempting to tell the truth as it happened, but this
is not yet an adequate account of documentaries.

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Two important observations suggest the necessity of refining this account.


First, there are some entertainment films that also purport to tell a true story
or are at least inspired by true events. These are hardly documentaries, but they
do, in some real sense, try to tell us a true story. Documentarian John Grierson
reminds us that the presence of the actual does not make a documentary film
because what one does with the actual can be as meretricious and synthetic
and phony as Hollywood at its worst (Grierson, 1946). A dramatization of the
actual does not mean that the actual has been documented.
These films lack the element of telling us a true story as it happened, but
this likely takes as it happened too literally. A documentary rarely consists
only of film shot as the event unfolds in time. As it happened indicates not a
temporal event, but that the story told does not significantly deviate from what
the events were. To do the former would unnecessarily conflate as it happened
with while it happens. This criterion of as it happened should not be taken
to mean that we are literally recording a sequence of events.
Second, while attempting to tell a true story, documentaries usually take
a particular perspective; that is, they are not objective. Documentarian Philip
Dunne puts it this way:
Most documentaries have one thing in common: each spring from a definite
need; each is conceived as an idea-weapon to strike a blow for whatever cause the
originator has in mind. In the broadest sense the documentary is almost always,
therefore, an instrument of propaganda. (Dunne, 1946)

This use of the term propaganda might strike us as a bit off. Certainly, Dunnes
context of the 1940s is something to note here. The idea, however, remains the
samedocumentary is not intended to be balanced; it comes from a particular
perspective and often the filmmaker intends the audience members to share that
perspective once the viewing is completed. It means to change minds and ideas,
or at the very least, confirm particular ideas the audience members had already.
All documentary and viewer experience of documentary is affected both by
the producer and by the viewer. In this way, we go back to the earliest uses
of the term and we mean the propagation of an idea in ways that encourage
adopting a particular point of view. Whether or not Dunne had this more neutral
idea of propaganda in mind, we can see its use in distinguishing documentary
today. Nichols talks about this phenomenon in terms of the social issues and
civic-mindedness of documentaries (Nichols, 1991). This lack of objectivity is
one thing that might distinguish documentaries from straight news reporting,
although current practice in news reporting might make this more difficult than
in other historical periods. This might indicate a failure of compliance with
journalistic ethics and an unfortunate blurring of news and documentary that,
while interesting, cannot be addressed here.

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From this, it is plain that just trying to tell a true story in a film does not make
it a documentary. We might, for example, think we should rule out dramatizations
altogether, but this is too hasty. Many documentaries rely on dramatizations of
key events as they delve into the past, bringing some truth to light. For example,
in The Thin Blue Line, dramatizations demonstrate aspects of the murder of a
Dallas police officer that we could not visually get any other way. Similarly,
Incident at Oglala uses dramatizations to try to expose inconsistencies in FBI
reports about the death of a Native American on a reservation in South Dakota.3
It is actually quite unusual to have a documentary fully shot while it happens,
although this is less unusual for straight news reporting. Documentaries, may
give us an idea of what it was like to witness an event, but not necessarily by
filming the event while it happened.
A documentary film is one that attempts to tell a true story, often from a
particular perspective, and tries to elicit a feeling of what the real event or person
was like. This account leaves open the possibility that dramatizations might be
used or that footage from the actual event might be used. It seems a decent
attempt at an account from the perspective of a potential audience member.
Further revisions will be needed as ideas from film scholars are considered.
Nichols, in his book Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, looks at defining documentary film from the perspective of the viewer. Yet
much of what he says about the viewers point of view is laden with concepts
from film theory and psychology outside what laypeople consider. Still, some of
his discussion is useful. He says that as viewers, we expect that what occurred
in front of the camera has undergone little or no modification in order to be
recorded (Nichols, 1991). Image and sound manipulation, while they may
display aspects of skill and technological advancement, seem out of place in
a documentary. This is likely because such manipulation represents a distortion
of the actual and thus not something to be a part of documenting the actual.
This may be something of an interesting red-herring. What is really at issue, it
seems, is obvious manipulation or distortion. That which is not obvious to the
average viewer yet is necessary for there to be a coherent film, seems not out of
place at all, but one mark of the art and craft of filmmaking. From the viewers
perspective, things that change the reality of what is portrayed are problematic;
things that enhance its transmission are not.
Grierson, a documentarian from the World War II era, reflecting on the
documentary form, offers another important insight. Grierson argues that documentarians, as filmmakers, are artists but of a different sort than painters,
etc., or even entertainment filmmakers. As artists, there are other concerns
than mere truth-telling, although that is critically important. The production
of art is important as well. He says the documentary is the branch of film
production which goes to the actual, and photographs it and edits and shapes
it (Grierson, 1946). Here, the elements of art and truth-telling come together.

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Again combining these seemingly disparate ideas, he says it is a basic tenet of


documentary theory that the primary search is not for beauty, but for the fact of
the matter, and that in the fact of the matter is the only path to beauty that will
not soon wear down (Grierson, 1946).4
In Griersons remarks, we see an additional element not yet incorporated into
the laypersons accountartistry, which is implicit in thinking about such films.
We may wish to dispute the artistry of a particular documentary as an art or film
critic might, but the idea of documentary as art allows for the solidification of
an important distinction. This criterion further separates the documentary film
from the news.
Incorporating these ideas from documentary film theory into our account
is useful. They are not so far outside of what a potential audience member
would consider part of an appropriate understanding of documentary film to be
excluded. So, from film theory, the ideas that documentaries undergo far less
manipulation of both images and sound when being recorded than traditional
entertainment films are allowed, and that they contain some display of (perhaps
disputed) artistry to differentiate them from the news are added.
The account of documentary films from the viewers perspective now looks
like this: a film that attempts to tell a true story as it happened, often from a
particular perspective, that tries to elicit in us a feeling of what the real event or
person was like, relying little on the obvious manipulation of images and sound
in its recording yet at the same time displaying some degree of artistry. This
account allows us to progress to the discussion of the moral responsibilities of
filmmakers toward their subjects.
Documentary, to Nichols is an institutional practice that has rules, constraints and conventions that have been developed over time by documentarians
(practitioners) the same way rules, constraints, and conventions develop for
other practices, such as law and medicine. In addition, like other practices of
institutions, it is dynamic and changing all the time, to stretch the limits of the
institution and adapt to societal needs and concerns, displaying and achieving
internal goods related to the excellences of the practice. This reflection on
documentary filmmakers will be useful later. If Nichols is correct, that there is
a social institution which in some loose sense governs the practice of making
documentary films, then there is a strong foundation for requiring standards of
ethics, just as we do for the practices of other social institutions.
Perhaps the best known account of social institutions as they relate to moral
matters is John Rawls A Theory of Justice. Rawls specifically identifies institutions with the set of rules that specify the rights, privileges, and responsibilities
of those who participate in it (Rawls, 1971). Institutions, Rawls says, can be
thought of in two ways. One way is to think of them in terms of an abstract
object. In this way, we might speculate about what an institution, not yet realized,
would look like if it had certain rules and procedures. This would be akin to

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crafting a new board game or drafting a constitution of a new organization


or government. The second way of conceiving of an institution is that it is
the realization in the thought and conduct of certain persons at a certain time
and place of the actions specified by these rules (Rawls, 1971). An institution,
according to Rawls, exists at a certain time and place when the actions specified
by it are regularly carried out in accordance with a public understanding that the
system of rules defining the institution is to be followed (Rawls, 1971). The
rules, if known only to the practitioners, of an institution must be designed
to achieve ends generally accepted and others [can] not be adversely affected
(Rawls, 1971).
Documentary film, even if it is only a subpart of the institution of the media,
meets the conditions needed to be part of a social institution. There are rights,
privileges, and responsibilities of being in the media, such as the privilege of
better access to public officials and events and the responsibility to tell the truth.
The account of documentary from the laypersons perspective given above speaks
also to the institution as publically understood to follow rules and conventions.
The institution of the media determines the standards needed and provides the
context for internal and external goods for the practice (Borden, 2007).
OBLIGATIONS OF DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS
AS PRACTITIONERS
The obligations of documentary filmmaking can be thought to arise from its
status as a practice of a social institution. In order to make this suggestion
plausible, the question of why it is reasonable to think documentarians are in
fact practitioners of a social institution needs to be addressed. It is important
to consider what makes a practice a practice. When considering philosophical
discussions of practices, it is natural to consider documentary filmmaking a
practice.5
Alasdair MacIntyres discussion of practices in After Virtue has become the
standard starting point in contemporary philosophical discussions on the matter.
He says that a practice is
any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity
through which goods internal to that form of human activity are realized in the
course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to,
and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers
to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are
systematically extended. (MacIntyre, 1981)

He also offers some illustrative examples of things that are practices and things
that are not. He says that bricklaying is not a practice; architecture is : : :

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and so are painting and music (MacIntyre, 1981). Maintaining and sustaining
communities and all that go into that endeavor count as practices (MacIntyre,
1981).
Given that our definition of documentary places it firmly in the realm of the
arts, it might be an easy matter to conclude that documentary filmmaking is a
practice. Further illustrations rely on MacIntyres account and how they relate
to documentary filmmaking.
An aspect of MacIntyres account that can be illustrative for documentary
filmmaking as a practice concerns goods internal to a practice. According to
MacIntyre, an external good such as an award or revenue from a film is always
some individuals property and possession (MacIntyre, 1981). Internal goods,
however, are good for the whole community who participate in the practice
(MacIntyre, 1981). Borden, speaking of journalism as a practice, connects internal goods as those things that help achieve the communal goals of journalism
excellence (Borden, 2007). One persons excelling in the form does not diminish
the achievements of others but is a benefit to all. If the communal goals of
documentary filmmaking include artistry and craft in telling a true story as it
happened, examples of films that do this particularly well or in novel ways
demonstrate internal goods achieved. Innovation, for example, does good for all
involved. For the case of documentary, we can think of examples where internal
goods are particularly well realized, such as in Errol Morris The Thin Blue
Line. Morris innovations using dramatizations allowed him to realize one of
the primary virtues of documentary filmmaking, truth-telling, and to do it in a
compelling way, exposing errors in peoples memories and testimony that lead
to a miscarriage of justice.
Another important facet of the discussion of practices and documentary filmmaking concerns not the definition of practice itself but rather what the concept
of a practice entails, that is, standards. MacIntyre argues that a practice involves
standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of
goods (MacIntyre, 1981). On the surface, there is nothing about these standards
and rules that is overtly ethical, but their connection to excellences does suggest
something. MacIntyre, arguing from a distinctly Aristotelian perspective relates
excellences to virtues. Standards, rules, some sense of authority, and internal
goods frame the practice of documentary filmmaking as they do for any art, any
practice. Keeping in mind this discussion of documentary as practice will serve
to frame what follows.
The focus on responsibilities to the subjects of documentary films lends itself
to the examination of informed consent. The requirement of gaining the consent
of the subjects of films provides an opportunity for filmmakers to either comply
with ethical standards or to thwart them. Interestingly, genuine informed consent
appeals to one of the same excellences as the making of documentary films
truth-telling.

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Winston argues persuasively that not only are there important and critical ethical aspects to documentary filmmaking but also that the typical ways
documentarians have side-stepped these issues, relying on a merely legalistic
conception of obligations to others or standards appropriate only to journalism,
are unsatisfactory. Winston is clear these tactics do not absolve the documentarian from ethical behavior (Winston, 1995). He argues that discussions of
consent as a shield for documentarians often seem disingenuous, and consent
itself is otherwise problematic.6 Releases usually do not meet the standards for
informed consent, at least insofar as we are concerned with ethics rather than
mere legality. To truly inform a potential subject would take more time and would
require discussion, opportunity to ask questions, and a noncoercive atmosphere.
Winston describes the process, saying that usually, obtaining consent is part
and parcel of the general confusion and excitement of the filmmaking process
a process unfamiliar and glamorous for most people (Winston, 1995). Some
might still consent to be in documentary films even given risks to self, some
might see the reward of potential fame or being memorialized in film enough
to off-set these risks. Nevertheless, it is important that the potential subject
have a noncoercive atmosphere and enough information to reasonably make the
decision to participate. This implies that the consent given may not be genuine.
Winston mentions that filmmakers do not meet the standards for informed
consent used in science. He says
consent in filmmaking has never been held to these standards because they go
beyond what the law requires for the legal concept of consent. As a legal term,
consent is part of, and essential to, the contracting process. Legally, consent in
documentary is simply seen as a form of contract. (Winston, 1995)

He goes on to say that a stronger concept of consent is not enforceable since it


would violate the freedom of contract.7 For science and medicine, consent has
both legal and ethical aspects. The ethical aspects of consent are what is missing
in documentary, according to Winston.
There is good reason to think that what the law demands is the bare minimum
and is not necessarily connected to the excellences involved in the practice. Since
documentary filmmaking constitutes a practice of a social institution, we have
a foothold for thinking there are obligations to be followed by filmmakers other
than what is legally codified.
This example of gaining informed consent from subjects of documentary films
serves to highlight that ethical and legal requirements are often different. Even
when consent is given, the potential for harm to subjects still exists. Consent to
be filmed might mitigate some ethical responsibilities filmmakers have to their
subjects, but it does not absolve them of all responsibilities when harm can be
done.

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THREE CASES: THE THIN BLUE LINE,


DOPE SICK LOVE, AND BORN INTO BROTHELS
Concern to minimize harm hints at the obligation to prevent harm from occurring, even when the harm is outside the context of the film being made. In a
discussion about the responsibilities of journalists, Edmund Lambeth calls this
responsibility humaneness. He says
the injunction to do no direct harm, prevent direct harm and render assistance to
fellow humansin short, humanenessis on its face an obligation humans should
assume. Its inclusion here [in journalism ethics] is not ritualistic but deliberate,
emphasizing that journalists should live with this primary obligation and actively
consider what it means in their work. (Lambeth, 1986)

Notice, however, what Lambeth is saying herethis is a general (not special)


obligation. It is an obligation we all have, that sometimes journalists are called
to fulfill. Justification for this obligation for documentarians comes from the
relationships they have with their subjects. Their role as filmmakers does not
obviate this responsibility.
Documentarians often have the luxury of longer, deeper relationships with
their subjects than journalists writing or producing pieces for typical news
outlets. This puts them in a position to have knowledge about their subjects
that might be needed to help them. Take three, very different examples. Morris,
in directing The Thin Blue Line,8 came to be in a position of having evidence
that strongly suggested that Randall Adamss murder conviction was a mistake.
Morriss film looks at the murder of a Dallas policeman and the varied ways
those involved in the investigation into the murder recounted more (or less)
truthfully their experiences, what they witnessed, and what they remembered.
The film helped bring the correct man to justice and exposed problems with
the initial investigation. Morris incurred a moral obligation to do what he
could to prevent harm (further incarceration and execution) to Adams given this
knowledge. These harms, however, are unrelated to his being in Morris film.
Knowledge Morris gained in the making of the film put him in a special position.
This kind of case is less troubling for the filmmaker since doing something
about it did not compromise his artistic integrity. Even so, Morris claims that
the subject of the film did change once he became aware of what information
he garnered from the actual killer, David Harris (Bates, 1989).
Another example about preventing harm to subjects concerns the HBO documentary Dope Sick Love by Felice Conte, Brent Renaud, and Craig Renaud.
This film follows two couples of drug addicts in New York City. The idea of the
film is to see how the relationships of these people are complicated by their drug
addiction and if the love they have for each other can sustain them through the

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difficulties of shared drug addiction. The attempt at cinema verit 9 is evident


throughout almost the entire film, perhaps giving the filmmakers a sense that
they were simply observing and under no obligation to do anything if what
unfolded on film was tragic and even preventable. Filmmakers certainly do not
have obligations, for example, to stop war or something of that kind which is
outside their abilities.10 However, in Dope Sick Love one of the subjects being
followed by the camera, a woman addicted to drugs, began to have more than the
typical adverse reaction to the drugs and appeared to be in immediate distress.
At this point, we hear one of the filmmakers address her, breaking the spell
of cinema verit and any, albeit dubious, moral claims that might be said to
come with it. Yet the filmmakers do nothing to assist their subject. Conte and
the Renauds, to prevent harm to their subjects, should not have to get them
into rehab or stop them from doing drugs. This is not their job and would
violate their subjects autonomy. However, at the instant in question, it seems
more could have and in fact should have been done to help their apparently
overdosing subject.
A third case demonstrates how a filmmaker can try to prevent harm but fail
to do so. The question here will be whether the attempt to prevent harm in a
situation in which the agent likely does not have the ability to do so necessarily
presents a moral failing. In Born Into Brothels, Zana Briski, one of the directors,
teaches photography to a group of children in Calcuttas red light district. She
sees the promise several of them have as future photographers, and this strikes
her because they are otherwise children without futures. She tries to get them
out of the district and into boarding schools so they can have an education and
opportunities for something better. She runs into opposition from their families,
from the government about getting them the required papers, and from the
children themselves, scared to leave the only life they have ever known. The
film documents some of the high points, including getting a couple of the girls
into school and an overseas trip for Avijit, one of the budding photographers.
It also documents the lows, including girls leaving school, and the squalor that
remains for the large number of these children and others like them. Here is a
case in which the filmmaker always intended in the making of the film to try
to prevent harm, to do good for her subjects, and to hope that others would
share in that project. But she could not save them allnot even all of those who
took part in her photography classes, let alone all the children of prostitutes in
Calcutta.11
Should we say that Briski failed? That she did something morally wrong?
What of Conte and the Renauds? Or of Morris? By what standard of a practice
of documentary filmmaking should their actions be evaluated?
As mentioned earlier, MacIntryre suggests that the standards of a practice are
related to the internal goods of that practicethe excellences of the practice. He
is clear to differentiate between practices such as art and those of community

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life and human interaction. This differentiation, though, at least insofar as the
making of most documentary films is concerned, is a mistake. The making of
most documentary films involves significant human interaction, so the practices
of art and human interaction overlap rather than being differentiated. Given this
overlap, so too must the standards of the practices. This is a point similar to
Lambeths mention of the general obligation of humaneness.
This MacIntyre-inspired Aristotelian virtue ethics approach would require us
to balance the excellences of human interaction with the excellences of art, in
this case the particular art of documentary filmmaking. With this approach, it
might be possible to claim that the excellences of art take precedence over the
excellences of human interaction, if some excellence of art could not otherwise
be realized. Most documentary filmmakers, and certainly the ones in the examples, cannot claim this. Human interaction is a necessary part of their artistic
practice.
Given that this is the case, it seems one cannot say that he or she is simply an
artist living by those standards, for this art involves other people in its production.
We are first human and only then artists and practitioners. This seems at least a
good prima facie reason to have the practices of human interaction trump those
of art. If this is the case, Morris and Briski stand on firmer ground than Conte
and the Renauds. Morris, in fact, seems to use innovative artistic techniques to
further expose the injustice done to Adams. Briski, while not always successful
in preventing harm to her young subjects, is motivated by her compassion (likely
an excellence of human interaction) for them to try to tell their story in a way
compelling to others. Conte and the Renauds, however, while not necessarily
exploitative of their subjects, do little to engage them as human persons even
though the subjects repeatedly address those behind the camera and seem to
seek some acknowledgement from them.
Here we see the connection between the relationships documentarians can
have with their subjects and their status as practioners of an art. These filmmakers
have relationships with their subjects that gives them special information that
can give rise to moral obligations beyond what art demands. This obligation is
to be balanced with the obligations of the practice of their art. Harm to ones
subject, however, if serious enough, should trump artistic obligations.
Such balancing appeals to Peter Singers principle of comparable moral worth,
if taking the virtue ethics approach suggested by the discussion of practices is
unsatisfactory. Singer argues that we have a moral obligation to help those in
need as long as we do not have to give up anything of comparable moral worth
to what the subject gains (Singer, 1993). It would be easy to say that given such
a principle, Morris was right in giving up his initial idea for his project and to
help expose Harris as the actual killer. Yet Conte and the Renauds would be
wrong to claim that their interest in art or in making their film trumped their
subjects continued life. It is less clear what to say about Briski and her record

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of helping some of her subjects but not others, although not due to lack of
trying. We could say that she followed the principle no matter what the end
resultsshe did not compromise her subjects welfare for something of lesser
moral value. This does modify the principle a bit, but it seems it could be in
line with Singers nuanced take on utilitarianism (Singer, 1993).
Alternatively, we could take a Kantian inspired view, requiring us to treat
others as ends in themselves. This would yield similar results to Singers principle. Treating the value of art as more important than that of the life of a
person would surely be prohibited. Insofar as Briski is concerned, a Kantian
theory would more readily assess her behavior as morally permissible because
she certainly did not treat these children as mere means, no matter what the
outcome of her assistance ended up being.
If we take seriously the idea that documentarians are artists and practitioners
of a social institution and also human beings practicing the goods of human
interaction, no matter which of the three major ethical traditions we prefer
Utilitarianism, Kantianism, or Aristotelian virtue ethicswe see that documentarians have moral obligations to their subjects greater than what the law may
require. The idea of documentary filmmaking as a practice provides the initial
impetus to the claim. The example given here goes beyond the injunction to
minimize harm from the experience of being in the film to preventing harms
unrelated to being a films subject. The two competing practices of art and
human interaction must weigh in the favor of the latter when the practice of
art is documentary filmmaking because no such practice is possible without
other humans, no internal goods could be realized. The interactions needed for
this practice are significant. Being obligated to prevent harm does not mean all
harmthat would be impossible. It also does not mean all harm because there
would be cases in which a subjects autonomy would be violated. However,
harm that documentarians are in the position to prevent that would not result
in violations of autonomy is required as an internal good to the practice of not
only human interaction but documentary filmmaking. They are goods internal
to the practice of documentary filmmaking because without human interactions,
there would be no practice. They are the background conditions needed for the
practice of documentary filmmaking to continue.
Clearly this is not a comprehensive code of ethics for documentarians. The
purpose of this article is to discuss a foundation for the ethical responsibilities
of documentary filmmakers for the prevention of harm to their subjects. On
the view presented here, documentary filmmakers have moral responsibilities
to prevent harm to their subjects if in a position to do so. This goes beyond
what the law demands and beyond harms that might result from being in
the film itself. This is because documentary filmmaking is a practice of a
social institution with the goods of human interaction (itself a practice) internal
to it.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author wishes to thank members of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics for their interest and attention; Richard Leonard, S.J., director
for the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting, Newman College,
University of Melbourne, Australia, for his helpful comments and unique perspective; Jay Ciaffa for his interest and careful eye; and the anonymous reviewers
at the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

NOTES
1. Roger & Me, Michael Moores breakout film, details the demise of Flint,
Mich., and Moores attempt to get General Motors CEO Roger Smith to
meet with him. Shoah, the lengthy Holocaust documentary, consists of
interviews with former Nazis, Holocaust survivors, and witnesses without
using typical news or war footage expected in such a film.
2. March of the Penguins, a nature documentary, looks at the dangerous
journey taken by Emperor penguins in the Antarctic. As a nature film,
it does not pose the same ethical issues of harm to subjects as the three
films that will be primary examples in the final section. In Super Size
Me, filmmaker and main subject Morgan Spurlock does confront issues
of harm to subjects, namely the harm he causes to his own health in
attempting to eat only fast food for a month. Bowling for Columbine,
another Michael Moore film, looks at the risks guns pose in America
after the school shooting at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo.
3. Incident at Oglala also helps illustrate the point about entertainment films
telling a true story or being inspired by true events. Michael Apted, the
director, also directed Thunderheart, an entertainment film inspired by
the events covered in the documentary.
4. While Griersons work is still a mainstay in documentary film theory,
much has changed since World War II. For example, one type of film to
be discussed here is cinema verit, a post-Grierson style of documentary
employing different methodology.
5. Sandra Borden makes a similar argument for journalism as a practice;
see especially chapter 2.
6. For further discussion on consent and documentary filmmaking, see also
Pryluck, C. (1988). Ultimately we are all outsiders: The ethics of documentary filming. In A. Rosenthal (Ed.), New challenges for documentary
(pp. 255268). Berkeley: University of California Press.
7. See Winston (1995). Further, universities, for example, having an institutional review board would likely have these more stringent standards

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8.
9.

10.
11.

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for informed consent. They also would have another body review the
information given in the informed consent form. This serves as a check
so that the interests of the researcher do not overshadow the interests
of the subjects. This model might serve documentarians very well but
would certainly take more time.
Morris has come under scrutiny for paying interviewees in one of his
films, but this controversy did not affect his work in The Thin Blue Line.
The reason I say attempt is twofold. First, the subjects routinely talk to
the camera. Therefore, it is not as though the subjects did not notice the
cameras. In some sense, the claim to nonintervention is moot. Second,
the subjects were followed into often close quarters (e.g., bathroom stalls,
stairwells, elevators), so it is not as though the action just unfolded in
front of the cameras. Those with the cameras sought it out and likely
had an effect on it.
Nor do they have obligations to put themselves in mortal danger. Still,
there are some obligations that they do have.
There is potential for documentary, like most other practices and institutions, to oppress those already at risk of marginalization such as women
and children.

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