While journalistic practice may be governed by publication-based ethical guidelines, documentary films are not subject to the same sort of evaluative criteria during the newsgathering stage. Documentary production is not regulated and journalist filmmakers are typically independent small business owners who sell their work to distributors, mainly for television broadcast. As independent producers looking to make a sale, they are only held to the guidelines of broadcast standards.
Documentary film makes few claims to objectivity. The form is often understood as a tool for social change, a means to preserve something that is disappearing or a channel for the most vulnerable people and communities to tell their stories. While news media is often accused of supporting the status quo, documentary films often garner praise for trying to subvert it. They often highlight injustice and in recent years there has been an explosion of human rights and social-issue documentaries that try to convince audiences that something needs to be done about the problems they highlight.
Bill Nichols, a distinguished documentary scholar and professor at San Francisco State University, has been examining documentary as a form and a practice for over thirty years. In 2006, he wrote an article for the International Documentary Association in which he sought to answer the question, “Can we establish standards for an ethical documentary practice?” Nichols notes that documentary does not serve as a tool for information transfer but rather seeks to win the agreement of audiences. He says, “Recourse to rhetorical devices is therefore not surprising, but this is far from an excuse to abandon ethics.”
There are also uncomfortable truths about documentary film that cannot be overlooked when considering ethical guidelines. Often the subjects of documentaries are people who have been victimized and marginalized. The people who make films about them profit, financially and otherwise, from the suffering of other people. Therefore, a foundational base for documentary ethics involves acknowledging the imbalance of power on either side of the lens.