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Tough Topics in Investigative Journalism: Double Exposure 2023

An older man sits at the bedside of a woman lying on a bed, with a crucifix on the wall between them.If Dreams Were Lightning

The ninth annual edition of Double Exposure, a festival celebrating investigative journalism, once again brought together an intensely engaged group of journalists, documentarians, lawyers and funders. Washington, D.C., where antennas prick right up when you start talking about how to influence public opinion, is the precise intersection for these different professional groups to find each other.

So, it’s not surprising that this is an event where the (three-day) symposium is at least as important as the festival. The topics were tough. What does collaboration look like for newspapers used to honing their competitive edge and maintaining strict distance from “sources”? What are the challenges to working together as a truly diverse team? How does a one-person independent film project do the work that many journalists depend on their fact-checkers, their FOIA filers, their research teams for? Oh, and what if you can’t be sure your main character isn’t one of the bad guys?

MacArthur Foundation program officer Lauren Pabst said, “This feels like a brave space.”

What Their Challenges Are

One big issue, especially for journalists and editors at media organizations, was learning about appropriate care for participants and the need to grow and maintain trust with both them and communities they live in. As festival programmer Lana Garland noted, that issue has been addressed by the Documentary Accountability Working Group’s framework for non-extractive filmmaking. At the Detroit Free Press, veteran photographer Kimberly Mitchell is making a documentary with and about climate activist Siwatu-Salama Ra. Her editor, Kathy Kieliszewski, is an award-winning documentarian and journalist who’s been fighting for the importance of visual journalism for decades. Together they are problem-solving storytelling challenges. “Most of our stories don’t involve collaboration with the people in the story,” Kieliszewski said. “But occasionally you have to.” Mitchell, who is Black, talked about establishing and maintaining trust with Siwatu’s family and community, and about the importance of Siwatu’s own voice and perspective. The Free Press, Kieliszewski admitted, has not always done a good job of representing voices from all of Detroit, but is sharing all the footage from the film with Siwatu, among other arrangements.

Julian Rubinstein, an independent journalist who directed 2022’s The Holly and wrote a book of the same name, described a different set of issues. The lead participant in The Holly, Terrance Roberts, is a Denver community organizer fighting gentrification who ran afoul of other interests in his work. Rubinstein patiently researched the story, eventually uncovering close relationships between gangs, anti-violence crusaders and community leaders, and city government—all of whom found Roberts, and eventually Rubinstein, to be impediments. Both of them faced (and face) death threats. Roberts and some members of his network wanted him to be a producer on the film, but Rubinstein resisted either a credit or payment. He wanted, first, to leave open the possibility that his investigation could uncover information that would change his own perspective on Roberts. Second, he wanted Roberts to be able to say, as he did, that the film told his story without his influencing the narrative. In the end, Rubinstein said, Roberts was happy with the result and Rubinstein’s choice.

As production teams become more aware of the need for genuine diversity, they also discover the challenges of working together across the deep cultural differences that race, class and gender inequalities create. Rubinstein saw that in practice when he depended on Black members of his team to critique the over-use of police violence against Black civilians. “I hadn’t been aware of how damaging seeing that violence could be,” he admitted. Princess Hairston, one of the directors for Breaking the News, a film about The 19th, a news outlet from women’s and LBTQ+ perspectives, said the team found the same issues that the film addresses—how to create a truly diverse workplace—affected them as well. Privilege blinds as a key part of how it works; marginalized people are tired of having to educate their colleagues, and they’re really tired of apologies instead of actions to change. “As a Black person, there is no day you don’t experience a racial experience,” said Hairston. “And we’re all programmed for harmful behavior, all of us.” They all had to learn to listen, and to change ways they did their work. Among other things, she had to advocate for equal pay. The Washington Post’s Kate Woodsome agreed with the challenge. At the Post, she said, borrowing a phrase, “We’ve had a recognition, but not yet a reckoning.”

Yoruba Richen’s experience confirmed Hairston’s. She recalled working on a New York Times documentary about Brionna Taylor soon after her murder. The journalist the Times assigned questioned whether, as a Black person, she could be objective. Then the journalist resisted the idea that the police might be lying. During breaks, conversations brimmed with similar stories; people seemed eager to talk about something they didn’t see discussed enough.

Taking care of yourself, in a stressful and sometimes violence profession, came up repeatedly. In talking about challenges of teamwork, Brad Lichtenstein saluted concerns of younger generations for a healthy quality of life. “I was raised in the work-till-you-bleed era,” he said. Kate Woodsome, who endured both danger and abuse while doing a visual story during the January 6 insurrection, said that mental health is an important part of any journalist’s equipment checklist for the day. She also recommended resources at The Dart Center, focused on issues of trauma for journalists. “You’re a human being, not a human doing,” she said.

Where the opportunities are

MacArthur Foundation program officer Pabst was there with the news of a just-launched funder coalition, Press Forward, backing local journalism and other storytelling initiatives with $500 million. Also showcased were fellowships for journalistic docs that tell stories out of underrepresented communities at NBC Docs and FRONTLINE/Firelight. Jacqueline Olive’s memorable film about funeral parlors during COVID, Death Is Our Business, was highlighted.

The deep resources of a well-staffed news operation are often unavailable to independent documentarians, but folks from the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press were represented. The Reporters Committee has free legal resources on its website for investigative journalists and documentarians as wells doing pre-publication reviews, including with documentarians. It also collaborates with the International Documentary Association’s Enterprise Documentary Fund, to provide pre-production legal advice. Among the films that got help from Reporters Committee was Another Body, by feminist activist filmmaker Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn. The compelling and innovative film uses generative AI to create alternative faces for two women who tracked down the perpetrator of nonconsensual pornographic imagery, created by imposing their faces on existing pornography using AI. (Full disclosure: Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay was a consulting producer.)

The Independent Television Service (ITVS, where I am a proud board member) works with news outlets throughout the country on visual storytelling, with funding from, among others, The MacArthur Foundation. Among the stories showcased at the festival was Evan Mascagni’s Persistent, which in 17 brief minutes shows the devastating consequences of a Kentucky law that creates long prison sentences for people with prior convictions. It was a collaboration with the Louisville Courier Journal. Meanwhile, nonprofit investigative news centers such as Pro Publica work with a wide variety of news outlets to showcase their work, often in audio/visual form. For example, “We Don’t Talk about Leonard” was a podcast produced with On the Media.

As well, many news outlets are hoping to attract younger viewers, particularly on social media, with vividly told visual stories. Business Insider editor Erica Berenstein recounted how the team leverages knowledge about viewer habits to lure them into stories they might not otherwise see. “We found out people like to watch squishy things,” she said. So, when they did a story about debt slavery today, they featured a brick-making family, focusing on the squish-squish of kneading clay into forms. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK keeps a close eye on analytics to make sure their youthful target audience is responding, and if not, they change tactics.

The films

The films demonstrated a wide range of story options when doing investigative journalism in documentary form. There’s the endangered-high-profile-journalist model in The Price of Truth, Director’s Cut, about director Patrick Forbes’ friend Dimitry Muratov. As editor of the Russian Novaya Gazeta, he lives with the knowledge that some of his employees have died and others have been exiled or censored. Although his newspaper is shut and his life threatened, he refuses to leave Moscow. There is the crusading-journalists-reveal-skullduggery story—but this time the story is about them. Rick Goldsmith’s Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink accurately targets hedge funds gutting newspapers for their assets (especially real estate). There is the from-the-viewpoint-of-those-most-affected story about the housing crisis. Luchina Fisher and Kate Davis’s Locked Out shocks with its stories of people who lost everything with land contracts—which have a long ugly history, as Ta-Nehisi Coates told us—in today’s Detroit. There’s the celebrity documentary, which Sorry/Not Sorry (produced with the New York Times) turns on its head. Caroline Suh and Cara Mones describe the fall and rise again of Louis C.K. from the viewpoint of the women who exposed his sexual abuse. The women paid high prices for their courage while watching C.K. be reinstalled on the comedy circuit.

And there is, poignantly, memoir. Carol Dysinger, who covered the war in Afghanistan at its beginning, middle and end, came on early in  the case of a young man probably paralyzed by the U.S. Army. She followed his story—he never recovered or got compensation, and died two years later—and ended up close to his mom. The resulting film, One Bullet, is a war told from the angle of one household, an indictment of failed obligations, a story of an improbable and fraught friendship, and a reminder that, in some ways, a journalistic moment is forever.

One of my favorite films was Ramin Bahrani’s 25-minute If Dreams Were Lightning, one of several memorable shorts. It was also co-produced with ITVS. The horror of rural health in the U.S. is well-documented. Bahrani, however, gives us unforgettable portraits of people living with that reality. People who visit mobile healthcare units are asked questions like, “What do you dream about?” “How about the men in your life?” “What are you afraid of?” An older woman has nightmares about losing a place to live. An elderly man can’t get any help with consequences from Agent Orange. A retired meter reader, now caring fulltime for his disabled wife, starts to cry when he admits he dreams about his wife being able to walk again. A Tennessee funeral director notes there are three funeral homes but no hospital in his town. A young woman says she’s being punished for having a child. I loved the film because, in a few minutes, it created a vivid sense of connection with the interviewees, and that vivid sense of their lived reality connected in turn with the larger issues about healthcare provision. It told a true story about systems through experience.

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