Good Question: How Accurate Are Documentaries?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s hard to avoid the social media frenzy over Netflix’s new documentary, “Making a Murderer.”

It’s the story of a Wisconsin man allegedly framed for murder.  The 10-hour series has generated plenty of anger, hate mail and even a petition to the White House. But, how accurate are documentaries? Good Question.

The term “documentary” was coined in the 1920s by Scottish documentary maker, John Grierson.  He defined them as “creative treatments of actuality.”

“A way that’s useful for us to define it is an argument,” Alice Lovejoy, a professor of documentary history at the University of Minnesota, said. “It’s an argument about some fact in the world, some idea in the world, something in the world.”

Lovejoy says people should look at documentaries with a critical eye because it’s written and filmed by someone with a particular perspective.

“We can’t expect a documentary to be an objective view of reality, such as it was at the time the crime occurred or something historical happened,” she says. “They’re not a mirror of the world, they’re a representation of the world.”

She points out filmmakers might have access to certain kinds of evidence or witnesses.  In the case of “Making a Murderer,” the current sheriff of Manitowoc County has said the documentary didn’t tell all sides of the story.

“There’s a lot of evidence here and if you look at it all and have the whole story, you would never think that happened,” Sheriff Robert Hermann told WGBA.

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardio and Moira Demos spent 10 years making the documentary.

“We were very thorough and, in our opinion, very accurate and very fair,” they told CBS News.

Documentary makers also have financial considerations to make during the filmmaking process, says Peter Gregg, a professor of communications at the University of St. Thomas.  He says they sometimes have to consider what the studio or distributors want as well.

“Just like any film or television show there’s a process of selection, a need to tell a story and a need to engage the audience,” Gregg said.

More from Heather Brown
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