Slippery Slope: Soundbites in documentaries vs. newscasts and online video clips

I’ve  been asked several times by people, who are much smarter than I am when it comes to new media, newspaper history, advertising, even film history (that one especially hurt) …why I would gather up a production team (also much smarter when it comes to the above topics) to do a feature documentary on the newspaper industry.  Not a short, but a feature-length documentary.  For some reason the fact that “Fit to Print” is a feature-length film instead of a short film seems to surprise people.  

…Their questioning of this surprised me…

I thought about it and I realized:  they had a point.  Why would I proceed in a feature rather than a short?  Especially when you can simply log on to YouTube or a million different websites these days and check out videos, podcasts and slideshows featuring stories all about the newspaper industry?

 Then I remembered:  A major goal in “Fit to Print” is to evaluate how attention spans have changed.   It doesn’t take a genius to understand that attention spans have shortened. Whether you’re reading a newspaper article in print or online, reading a book, listening to music or watching videos, one thing seems to ring true every time out — we never seem to have enough time.  It’s as if someone woke up one day and decided to shorten our 24 hour day to 21.  

 My grandfather and I often talk about this.  He mentions to me how chaotic everything seems to be these days.  “It wasn’t like this in your day?” I ask.  “Hell no”, he tells me.  My grandfather grew up during the depression.  If you wanted to find a job, you picked up the newspaper and searched the job listings.  “How the hell do you find job listings these days?”, he asks me.  “You go online and submit your resume to places”, I tell him.  “Submit to who?  Who looks at them?”  …I didn’t have an answer for that one.  

 For my grandfather, who served time in WWII breaking German codes, reading as much as possible was just a way of life.  “I can remember a time when you’d walk into a diner or walk around in the streets and everyone would be carrying a newspaper under their arm.  These days, it seems like people want all their news but don’t have time to look at even the shortest articles or get through an entire newscast.”  

 According to PBS’s News Hour, the “average newtwork soundbite shrunk to 7.3 seconds from 42 seconds in the 1969 presidential election.”  The reason I like to point this out isn’t because I necessarily care that our attention spans have, and continue to shrink.  In a way, this may be a good thing.  Let the bottom drop out.  Let our A.D.D. ridden minds reach that breaking point where we stop feeding ourselves junk food for the mind, and start demanding to be challenged once again.  

 ..Give me content… not bullshit.  If only reporters could use curse words in their articles, maybe our attention spans would expand then.  Maybe not.

 What was I talking about?

 Oh yeah…soundbites.  

 People keep asking me how the soundbite culture we see in the media has affected feature documentaries these days.  My opinion is only my own, but in looking at hundreds of documentary films, it’s interesting to see how filmmakers edit talking-heads interviews, news clips or radio broadcasts for their work.  If you look at Michael Moore’s films, he uses quite a bit of stock footage from newscasts from Fox News, CNN, and others in an attempt to turn-the-tables on the news organizations themselves.   “Farenheit 9/11”, for instance, is probably his best example of this.  The first half-hour is composed mostly of news clips from network television with Moore doing a voice-over.  The voice-over serves to explain some of the contradictions newscasters were relaying after September 11th.  

 Documentary filmmakers these days face a very real challenge in understanding the role of the soundbite culture.  Vérité-style filmmaking seems more popular than ever.  Could a film like “Before Stonewall” be produced today without a storm of people criticising the heavy use of talking-heads?  I spoke with the filmamker of “Owning the Weather”, Robert Greene, who mentioned his concern over this.   Sometimes, it appears that filmmakers allow certain segments to play longer than normal, simply in an attempt to reassure their audience that their films are ‘soundbite free’ or ‘untampered’ somehow.  This is a mistake.  If all you need is three words of dialogue to get your point across and cut to something else, it should be done.  Newscasts, audio and video clips online which run on the short-side should never be compared to montages or segments constructed in documentaries.  Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

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