Essential Question 6: What techniques are used to enhance the authority of the message?


Most documentaries make use of the convention of the expert, the authorities whose explanations, claims and presentation of information serve as the substance of the program.  However, the "expert" is in fact another construction, since viewers have some expectation about how experts should look, how they should sound, and what kinds of locations in which they should be situated.  In his book, Representing Reality, Bill Nichols writes, "Our willingness to agree with what is said [by experts or witnesses] relies to a surprisingly large extent on rhetorical persuasion and documentary convention." The implicit rule in documentaries is "Trust those who speak to the camera unless given a reason to do otherwise."

As a producer, if you want to make something or someone more believable, there are a lot of techniques you can use.  Put them in front of an important building, surround them with a high technology anchor desk, or have them dress in a very formal way.  And watch where you put the camera: it has to be close enough, but not too close.

Noticing How Expertise is Constructed in Video Documentaries

Who gets to be an expert? Most often, documentaries rely on experts who are middle-aged, white, well-educated men.  They are the mainstays of the documentary tradition.  Why is such a pattern established, and what are the consequences of relying on male experts? For some subject areas and topics, they could be the only available people who knew about the topic.  For some producers, the choice of male experts could be an unconscious effort to find "credible types,"still associated with white men.  For our students, the dominance of older white males, in subtle ways, may shape our expectations about who is entitled to be an expert.  As a producer, if you want to make something or someone more believable, there are a lot of techniques you can use.  Put them in front of an important building, surround them with a high technology anchor desk, or have them dress in a very formal way.  And watch where you put the camera: it has to be close enough, but not too close.

Target Age:  Secondary

Materials Needed:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials:  Part A of Segment 8 includes a brief illustration on the role of experts as an important element of the documentary genre; Part B includes a video clip from a fake documentary for use in this lesson.

Focus Question:  What techniques are used to enhance the authority of a message?

Goals and Objectives:

  1. Students will recognize that there are stereotypes about what an expert looks like and how he or she should be represented in a documentary. 

  2. Students will analyze the consequences of a viewers' tendency to trust without question what experts say in a documentary. 

  3. Students will understand how a person's prior knowledge and experience influence their assessment of which ideas have authority in a program.

Activity 1
Play Part A of Segment 8 and discuss the questions shown graphically at the end of the segment:

  • What are the visual conventions of experts' appearance, behavior and setting?
  • What are the positive and negative consequences (for both producers and viewers) in the use of these conventions?
  • What kinds of people are most commonly used as experts? Who is rarely shown?

Activity 2
This video segment is excerpted from In Search of the Edge, a documentary which uses all of the conventional techniques to "prove" that the Earth is flat.  Before playing Part B of Segment 8, divide the class into ten groups of two or three students each.  Have each group watch the episode with one of the following questions in mind:

  1. Is this a documentary? 
  2. What was the producer's purpose in making this documentary? 
  3. How did the producer's purpose shape the content of this program? 
  4. How is language used to manipulate the message? 
  5. How are sound and images used to manipulate the message? 
  6. What techniques are used to enhance the authenticity of the program? 
  7. What techniques are used to enhance the authority of the program? 
  8. How might different viewers interpret this message differently? 
  9. What techniques are used to attract audience attention? 
  10. Who makes money from this program?

After giving each group time for discussion, invite each group to summarize its major observations out loud, and then encourage general discussion about the program using the concepts generated in the discussion.

Encourage students to consider the consequences of "blind trust" in information.

Activity 3
Ask student so find information about the Flat Earth Society in books, newspapers and magazines, government documents, on-line services and through relatives.  Do the ideas seem more reasonable now that students have seen this documentary? Why or why not?