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Are documentaries our new source for news?

Are documentaries our new source for news?

Written by
Mathieu Pierre Dagonas
July 9th, 2019

As mainstream media outlets disappear and social media is full of fake news, people in search of the truth are turning to documentaries. Now we need to make them more accessible to Canadian audiences.

Are documentaries our new source for news?

Algorithms, push notifications and hashtags have been increasingly personalizing the way we experience the world around us ever since the inception of the internet. As more and more people refer to easily digestible social media posts as their preferred source of news, traditional outlets like newspapers and magazines are left in the lurch, facing layoffs and budget cuts.

But even though Canadians say they use social media to find news, they’re even losing trust in that. In a recent poll commissioned by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, 52 per cent of Canadians reported using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as their top sources of news, but only 32 per cent trust that the information they’re getting is true.

At the heart of the decline of both traditional and social media journalism is a problem that threatens to destroy the integrity of the industry as a whole: “fake news.” Online, all information has the potential to spread like wildfire, including misinformation. But it’s not all bleak. As more and more Canadians become skeptical of traditional and social media, they’re turning to another source: documentaries.

People are increasingly searching for content by topic – and they’re finding stories in documentaries that haven’t been extensively covered by mainstream media.

Historically, Canadian documentaries have a long tradition of highlighting underrepresented issues and uncovering hidden truths. As we see in Nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up, a recent documentary about the case of Colten Boushie, Canada’s documentary creators have never shied away from telling the hard stories.

Nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up, directed by Tasha Hubbard, took home the Best Canadian Documentary Feature at this year’s Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. The film attracted international attention for its portrayal of the racism in Canada’s justice system after the acquittal of Gerald Stanley, who shot and killed Boushie when he entered Stanley’s Saskatchewan property with his friends.

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (Trailer)

As I mentioned in a recent interview for the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA)’s Indiescreen magazine, in an era when newsfeeds across the country are crowded with misinformation and unknown sources, people are increasingly searching for content by topic – and they’re finding stories in documentaries that haven’t been extensively covered by mainstream media.

Another example of this is Tiffany Hsiung’s 2016 documentary The Apology, which received the Allan King Memorial Award from the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) this year. It follows three women who were held captive by the Imperial Japanese Army and used as sex slaves or “comfort women” during World War II. The Apology also achieved international acclaim, the result of which is that people are actually learning about comfort women for the first time, Hsiung pointed out in a recent interview.

Although our Prime Minister hasn’t taken to Twitter to question the integrity of major news outlets like our southern neighbours have, fake news isn’t just an American problem. A 2019 poll by the Ipsos Public Affairs for Canada's Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) found that 90 per cent of Canadians admitted to falling for “fake news,” and that Facebook was the most common source of it.

Prior to the Ipsos poll, last year Hot Docs released a report finding that 55 per cent of people are watching more documentaries than they were three years ago. Furthermore, 71 per cent of them said that the reason is because there seem to be more documentaries now about subjects that they’re interested in.

In 2014, only seven per cent of poll respondents could easily find and watch a Canadian documentary. That number only went up to 10 per cent in 2018.

But despite viewership going up, people are still finding it hard to discover and access documentaries, especially Canadian ones. Hot Docs did a similar report to the one released last year in 2014, finding that only seven per cent of poll respondents could easily find and watch a Canadian documentary. That number only went up to 10 per cent in 2018.

There’s no doubt that fake news across social media threatens the truth almost daily. But the recent increases in documentary viewership prove that the average Canadian is just as dedicated to uncovering the real story through documentaries as their filmmakers are.

Baljit Sangra’s film Because We Are Girls follows three Indo-Canadian sisters living in British Columbia as they brace themselves for the final verdict in the trial of their cousin, who sexually abused them as children. The film opened Vancouver’s DOXA Film Festival in May, selling out all four of its screenings.

Hot Docs 2019 Trailers: BECAUSE WE ARE GIRLS

So clearly, cuts and layoffs to major news outlets across the country don’t mean that facts are no longer important to Canadians – they simply indicate that people looking for different formats to access them. As engagement with the news on traditional and social media decreases, documentaries step forward as defenders of the truth. Now, as the relevance and importance of documentaries becomes more evident, we need to engage in a continuing conversation around reworking funding and distribution models so that Canada’s rich documentary industry can reach its full potential.

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A journalism crisis is threatening Canadian democracy.