Documentarians: Journalists need to listen to their sources, not speak for them

Angela Kocherga moderated a documentary discussion with Suree Towfighnia and Bernardo Ruiz for the first Must See Monday event of the semester. (Katelyn Finegan/DD)

In a media landscape crawling with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” journalists have more of a responsibility than ever to represent their sources fairly and accurately, two independent documentary filmmakers said at a panel Monday night.

“I’ve always been interested in character and story,” Bernardo Ruiz, the director behind the 2012 documentary “Reportero” said. “I actually often don’t like to say the word ‘character’ … I prefer the term ‘participant’ simply because the people you’re interacting with aren’t characters from fiction. They’re people who are living their lives, and it’s your responsibility and privilege as a documentary maker to kind of hang with them and spend time with them.”

The panel kicked off the spring semester’s weekly Must See Monday speaker series hosted in the Walter Cronkite School’s First Amendment Forum.

The event’s other guest, “Crying Earth Rise Up” director Suree Towfighnia, drove Ruiz’s point home.

“As a historian and someone with a truth-seeking background, it’s very important to me how we take out certain truths and certain data,” Towfighnia said. “I am an activist, but I would say more I’m a documentarian. I just want to witness. And I want people someday — if there’s some digital media or some kind of projector that some kid can construct in 100 years — [to] find these films and say, ‘This represents a period of time,’ and that I was there with a certain group of people representing them.”

Later in the discussion, Ruiz explained why he believes it is critical for journalists to compartmentalize their opinions separately from their reporting.

“I try not to begin the storytelling from a place of judgment or moral certitude because I think that’s dangerous,” Ruiz said. “Of course, I have opinions and feelings just like any other person, but part of the job is to engage people and give everybody a fair hearing — just let them say their piece and then really allow the audience to come up with their own judgment.”

The speech’s attendants, many of whom identified as aspiring documentary filmmakers, seemed impressed by the insights Ruiz and Towfighnia provided, applauding enthusiastically and eagerly asking questions about how they can jumpstart their careers.

Audience member and Cronkite mid-career graduate student Patricio Espinoza agreed with the speakers’ views.

“It’s really important, whether you’re doing day-to-day reporting or documentaries, to portray those characters in the right light and not let yourself be influenced by the story,” Espinoza said.

Another observer, Sandy Balazic, believed that while it is crucial for journalists to present their sources fairly, it is necessary to do so in a way that keeps the audience interested.

“I think you have to engage your audience,” Balazic said. “You have to kind of build that character. You can’t just throw somebody in their face and expect somebody to go, ‘Oh yeah, I understand that.’ You have to kind of build from square one to the end of the story.”

The evening was moderated by Cronkite News Borderlands bureau director Angela Kocherga.

Contact the reporter at cmfitzpa@asu.edu.