Draft Submission

Are documentaries exploiting those who collaborate and participate in them?

When does collaboration and participation become exploitation in online media and documentary? How can you turn participation in documentary into positive social change?


Participation is frequently within the nature of visual media such as documentary. For the purpose of this essay the participation referred to is the act of taking part in programs that attempt to portray reality, such as documentary and reality programs. To make clear, this participation is not the same as participatory filmmaking, it is about participants who are the ‘subjects’, whom form the content of the film.

Exploitation is the use of individuals, in an unjust way, for own personal gain or profit. Distorting reality or manipulating message and meaning can create exploitation in documentary. This can occur in different forms:

  • selective filming or editing, only showing one side of a story or person, or not giving a balanced impression; favouring one point of view
  • remixing or re-presenting media in a different context, which therefore alters the meaning
  • unintentional bias from the creative team, who make decisions which will effect the message of the programme.
  • portraying events suggestively, without directly manipulating the scenario, which viewers will interpret in a certain way not true to the intention of the subject.

Various film techniques, styles and forms have been used throughout history, and these all have various effects on how accurately documentaries portray reality. Some reduce and some enhance misrepresentation, or misconstrue meaning.

History of portraying reality

The pre-documentary phase, from the 1880s until 1920, captured the first images of real events. In this early stage of documentary, voiceovers, sound effects and music were added after filming. As technologies advanced, synchronous ‘direct’ sound allowed for documentaries that were more observational, where the subjects were allowed to speak for themselves.

In one of his most significant productions ‘Housing Problems’ (1935), filmmaker John Greirson highlights the experiences of people living in slum housing, through direct-to-camera interviews with tenants. This was one of the earliest forms of public participation in documentary, where people were invited to share parts of their life and their opinions with the viewer.


This ‘fly on the wall’ style of representing events became the dominant way of documenting reality, and was more observational and less interventional than the earlier forms.

Greirson was the first filmmaker to coin the phrase ‘documentary’, defining it as  ‘the creative treatment of actuality’. Through his work John Greirson pioneered the use of film as a way of helping the public understand and engage with the complex political and social issues of contemporary society. Documentaries of this time had the primary function to educate, not to entertain.


This period, where people began to become concerned with representing and recoding reality, coincided with the Mass Observation Movement that began 1937. It was an organisation made up of volunteers with the aim to record life in Britain through an archive of material, recorded in a variety of ways. They worked to try and paint a true picture of people’s lifestyles, opinions and stories surrounding significant events, that weren’t being portrayed by the mainstream media. This way of challenging the dominant representation of life by the media produced positive social change. Their work shaped part of British public policy during the Second World War, and through their studies helped create tax policy changes.

“Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (Cranin, Caleb.)

This became true of documentaries also, using them as a way to re-present facts of society back to viewers to inform, and to encourage change. A criticism of the Mass Observation Archive was that the information recorded was not representative of the British population, due to the selective nature of their observation groups, whereas a more modern mode of recording has a more scientific and valid approach.

Documentaries that recorded groups of people, mostly shared the same approach as the Mass Observation movement. They tended to generalise who or what they are communicating, therefore the same criticisms applied and have been raised by critics. Many did not truthfully portray what they intended; whether this is from the subjects selected, the style of filming, the clips used in the edit, or the pre-conceptions of the creators, who always will have a biased viewpoint.  These issues still feature in many of the television documentaries today, whether this misrepresentation was a result of the producers generalisation, or whether it was they way the viewer interpreted the information.


The styles and techniques described above have prevailed into today’s documentaries; there are still issues of generalisation and validity, and many documentaries continue to adopt a ‘fly on the wall’ approach. However, over the years the purpose of documentary film moved away from the educational towards a source of entertainment.


Participation in Documentary Today

In the UK, there were originally 4 television channels, BBC1 (launched in 1936), ITV (1955), BBC2 (1964), and Channel4 (1982). Channel 5 was launched in 1997, and was the final terrestrial analogue channel. With the invention of a large number of digital terrestrial channels, and when the entire country switched over to digital in 2012 came more competition between broadcasters to get the attention of viewers. This meant there was a need for programmes to create discussion from their viewers, creating a hype that would encourage others to watch the same programme to understand and engage in the dialogue. In terms of documentaries, they therefore needed to be more dramatic or controversial to entice viewers. Where producers could not create enough drama with topic, or scenario, they seemed to turn to subjects – whose behaviour could be used as a source of entertainment and discussion.

Creators have relied on the participation of others who allow access to their lives and thoughts, for the purposes of creating an entertaining programme. In this straightforward style of participation, the maker records these aspects, and edits them to create meaning, enforce an opinion, or to tell a story. Particularly in the process of editing, aspects of footage are either selected or rejected to create a particular message to the viewer. The problem this creates is that elements can become lost or the meaning can be changed, raising feelings of misrepresentation from the subject.

In ‘Educating Essex’ (2012) we really see the use of observational documentary for the entertainment of the masses. Embracing ‘fly on the wall style’ and pushing this even further, the directors used surveillance style cameras positioned around a school to capture the most natural behaviour over a series of weeks. This non-interventional style of recording aimed to produce footage with higher validity, as there was less of a presence of a camera, and students were recording in a more natural environment so were therefore less inhibited.


Where documentaries such as this one are unable to escape from bias, is during the editing phase, as there must be a method of selecting and rejecting footage – choosing to emphasise a certain point of view. This point of view will vary depending on many social and environmental factors of the appointed editors, as well as the opinions and standards of the broadcasting channel.

Channel 4 explains this issue within their online ethical guideline, acknowledging their will always be some manipulation of events in the editing stage, but this should not suggest to viewers circumstance that are not true. They insist that viewer trust is more important than the entertainment purposes of the programme;

“The editing process will inevitably condense events which have occurred over a period of time this must not be at the expense of distorting reality and misleading viewers. The truth must not be sacrificed for the sake of a more entertaining programme if this means cheating the viewer. It is never acceptable to represent something as having happened that did not. If it is claimed or suggested that footage is actuality, then that is what it should be; if it is not, then that must be made clear to viewers”

Despite this many documentary makers and television producers do not seem to follow this, or they do not do so very rigorously. Certain programmes may twist the words or actions of those recorded for their own benefit; to gather more viewers by creating something that generates more discussion. For example Channel4‘s ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ which created controversy in the way it misrepresented the people living in the village of Grassinton in Yorkshire. The programme portrayed the largely white, middle class community as one which was uncomfortable with people of different races. They selectively chose clips which would highlight this message, perhaps to create a more interest and debate.

“The villagers must confront their feelings on racial diversity as a young black family compete against a Yorkshireman, his girlfriend and her three teenagers. Simone and Phillip, both 35, have three young children, sons Lewis (7), Joel (4) and Elliot (3). They currently live in Epsom Downs and felt the move to Grassington was too good an opportunity to miss. However, as a young black family they are conscious that they will be very conspicuous…”

Another style of documentary creation, that considers the issue of consent is those which record through hidden cameras, filming in secret.

Social media has given programmes, which are controversial or more dramatic, a platform from which to profit: for example on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The ‘Hash tag’ was created by Twitter, and is a form of metadata tag. It allows online material to be grouped together. The symbol may be affixed to the beginning of key words within an online post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, websites, YouTube and so on. This process groups together information, enabling people to review all posts which feature that hash tagged word.

Hash tags are now widely used by mass broadcasting media; to create collections of information surrounding their program, to promote a ‘buzz’ around their branding, advertise the program, encouraging interest from other potential audiences. ITV and Channel 4 have adopted the use of Hash tags on programs, and often display them in the lower corners of the screen to encourage viewers have a discussion around the program on social media before, during, and after the program.

This interactive element supports documentary and reality program makers who attempt to create debate around the issue they are exploring. However, those participating in these kinds of programs often become the topic of mass discussion, and so it is increasingly important that the producers portray them accurately. Yet there is an obvious incentive from producers to exploit the people, who they are recording, in order to achieve better success and increase the interest surrounding their program. They can do this by creating a more shocking and dramatic piece of television, at the expense of those on screen.

Alongside the Hash tag, television producers encourage people to discuss their programs on social media, by providing material to be ‘Shared’, ‘Liked’ and commented on. This creates profit, from advertising and generally promoting the program. Those who engage in the discursive online process are making the producers money.

Collaboration in documentaries and online media 





My Conclusion

Will add quotes from

Karl Marx (Capital)
Jon Dovey (New documentary Ecologies)

Mandy Rose (Interview)

Reviews of docs

ARTICLE Crain, Caleb, “Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation Movement and the Meaning of Everyday Life” in The New Yorker magazine, September 11, 2006. Web, retrieved Oct 29 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/09/11/060911crat_atlarge


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