Documentary Ethics and the Art of the Interview

Although I have no formal training in the discipline of film or the specificities of documentary film-making, I am an experienced ethnographer who has done hundreds of hours of participant observation and semi-structured interviews for the purpose of scholarly research. So I guess that’s why I’ve been asked to give a guest lecture on documentary ethics and interview techniques to film students at SAE. In preparation for a guest lecture I put together a collection of resources and further reading on documentary film, interview techniques, ethical considerations and ethnographic insights, which I’ve shared here.

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Jun 21, 2016 - - 37
Doc Ethics: Let Core Values Drive Your Decisions

Kartemquin Films' founder/artistic director Gordon Quinn shares his thoughts on the ethical challenges he has faced over his rich and illustrious career. The following appears in the forthcoming Summer 2016 issue of Documentary magazine.

Over our 50 years at Kartemquin, we struggled with many ethical challenges while making films, but we did not start speaking publicly and qualifying these struggles as “ethical” until our documentary field was challenged by Pat Aufderheide of American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact. She asked our field what we mean by “ethics,” and if we have a code similar to that shared among the journalism community. Ethics would be easy if it were a set of rules. But in our documentaries, where we work with often vulnerable subjects over long periods of time on highly sensitive issues, rules are not what we need.

What we do is think about questions and contradictions that reflect the values that orient our decision-making. As we confront the inevitably idiosyncratic situations that emerge in our subjects’ complex lives and our relationship to them, the core problem is to find the balance between what we feel we owe our subjects and what we owe our viewers.

Jun 21, 2016 - - 27
Ethics and Practice in Student Research

Welcome! This site exists to assist students planning research projects in developing the skills and materials necessary to the ethical conduct of research with human subjects.

Gordon Quinn: Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

Jun 22, 2016 - - 52
Gordon Quinn: Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

There are no set rules in documentary filmmaking, only decisions about where to draw the line. Pioneer documentarian and Kartemquin Films cofounder Gordon Quinn explores examples from films such as "Hoop Dreams," "Prisoner of Her Past," and "The Interrupters" to illustrate how the documentary process relies upon a constant negotiation of power relationships among the story, subject, and viewer. In an interactive session mixing video with audience discussion, Quinn will cover ethical issues ranging from how to protect subjects' privacy while intimately exposing their lives, to filmmakers' responsibility to make their method and intent transparent to the audience. He will talk about what is often kept quiet, such as if—and how—subjects should be compensated. Quinn argues that, despite similarities between their codes of ethics, there are crucial differences between documentary and journalism that stem from factors such as trust and empathy. He also addresses pertinent intellectual property issues in the digital age, specifically the importance of ethics when exercising Fair Use.

Nov 18, 2016 - - 27
Documentary and Ethnography: Exploring Ethical Fieldwork Models

Koehler, D. (2012). Documentary and Ethnography: Exploring Ethical Fieldwork Models. Media Arts and Entertainment Elton Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 3(1). Available Online: at

Conducting fieldwork frequently sparks ethical challenges as researcher and environment clash. This study uses documentary and ethnography methodologies as a lens to illuminate different ways of thinking about fieldwork ethics. Meta-analysis and historiography analyzing past texts are combined with interviews with professionals. The key to confronting ethical challenges lies within one’s understanding of obligations before fieldworkers confront the grit and dynamism facing them in the research environment.

Thanks to the awesome Amy Harman for sharing this 🙂

Jun 21, 2016 - - 48
The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

To film or not to film? How close to a subject is too close? How far is too far? These are questions that documentary filmmakers should be asking themselves when they set out to record a true story. Sometimes lines are crossed, and sometimes boundaries are set beforehand. Sometimes the filmmaker and the audience disagree on where the line is, and a divide is created between them.

Jun 21, 2016 - - 30
Protecting Research Subjects

There are many guidelines in place to protect human subjects in sociological research. Learn more about protecting your informants in the Boundless open textbook.

Source: Boundless. “Protecting Research Subjects.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 21 Jun. 2016 from

Jun 21, 2016 - - 30
What It’s Like to Be the Subject of a Documentary Film?

Documentary films can, of course, be about a variety of subjects, including social justice, environmental causes or traumatic events. But what if the documentary is about you? Your life. Your family. Your job. Your love. Your story.

In this article, Indiewire speaks with a number of documentary film subjects on what it’s like to be the focus of a film, how the cameras might invade their lives (or not) and the reactions once the film is complete. The responses, as one could guess, are as varied as the subjects. So what is it like to be the focus of a documentary film? As it turns out, it’s not that different from real life.

Jun 21, 2016 - - 20
Negotiating Indigenous documentary storytelling, audience and cultural sensibility.

Gulpilil: One Red Blood, directed by Darlene Johnson, follows the life and career of multi-award wining Aboriginal actor, David Gulpilil, through interviews, clips from Gulpilil’s films, and footage of his life with his family and community in Arnhem Land. Darlene Johnson talks about some of the difficulties she faced in attempting to make a documentary that would do justice to an Aboriginal sensibility, specifically to the humour, the vigour and the complexity of David Gulpilil.

Jun 21, 2016 - - 58
The Interview: An Ethnographic Approach

What are new interview methods and practices in our new 'interview society' and how do they relate to traditional social science research? This volume interrogates the interview as understood, used - and under-used - by anthropologists. It puts the interview itself in the hotseat by exploring the nature of the interview, interview techniques, and illustrative cases of interview use.

What is a successful and representative interview? How are interviews best transcribed and integrated into our writing? Is interview knowledge production safe, ethical and representative? And how are interviews used by anthropologists in their ethnographic practice?

This important volume leads the reader from an initial scrutiny of the interview to interview techniques and illustrative case studies. It is experimental, innovative, and covers in detail matters such as awkwardness, silence and censorship in interviews that do not feature in general interview textbooks. It will appeal to social scientists engaged in qualitative research methods in general, and anthropology and sociology students using interviews in their research and writing in particular.


Jun 21, 2016 - - 65
Loosening Lips: The Art of the Interview

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder is known for his ability to get people to open up and tell all they know, on the record. His book, Tankers Full of Trouble, won the Investigative Reporters and Editors book award in 1994. He has taught interviewing and investigative reporting workshops in five countries, each year adding new techniques learned from journalists, cops, FBI agents, and lawyers. "Loosening Lips" is Nalder's workshop on the art of the interview.

Mar 08, 2017 - - 7
Creating Rapport in Interviews

In this course you will be introduced to the basic ideas behind the qualitative research in social science. You will learn about data collection, description, analysis and interpretation in qualitative research. Qualitative research often involves an iterative process. We will focus on the ingredients required for this process: data collection and analysis. You won't learn how to use qualitative methods by just watching video's, so we put much stress on collecting data through observation and interviewing and on analysing and interpreting the collected data in other assignments. Obviously, the most important concepts in qualitative research will be discussed, just as we will discuss quality criteria, good practices, ethics, writing some methods of analysis, and mixing methods. We hope to take away some prejudice, and enthuse many students for qualitative research.

How to Interview People for Their Life Stories

Mar 08, 2017 - - 20
How to Interview People for Their Life Stories

Interviewing tips for how to get people to talk about their life stories for articles, oral histories and videos. In this particular situation, two USC students do a mock interview using a crisis situation as the basis for asking the type of open-ended questions that lead to good answers.

How Louis Theroux Asks A Question

Jun 21, 2016 - - 59
How Louis Theroux Asks A Question

Louis Theroux is the master of the semi-structured and organic interview. Watch to gain some valuable insights into this style of interviewing.

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer

Mar 08, 2017 - - 14
Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer

Ethnography and interviewing are how we, as designers, see the world through other people's eyes and get them to tell us their stories.
In the spring of 2008, we talked to professors, experts, and students about this philosophical orientation and how to actually get people to talk.
To ground things a bit, we took a look at a truly universal article of clothing – denim jeans – and set out to understand: "Who's buying premium denim and why?"

Jun 22, 2017 - - 9
Interviewing tips for a video interview - ABC online education

You've got your questions, your equipment, your location and your interviewees. How do you do the interview? Catherine Marciniak and Benj Binks from ABC Open have some practical advice for you. This clip is one of eight on making a mini-documentary.

FilmSkills - The Art of the Interview

Jun 21, 2016 - - 46
FilmSkills - The Art of the Interview

You've seen thousands of interviews throughout your life, but when it's your turn to sit in the hot seat to interview a person, do you know what to do? In this video, we reveal hundreds of techniques to get the perfect interview. To see the rest of the this module and an entire series on producing documentaries, check out

Jun 22, 2017 - - 20
10 Quick Interviewing Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

Prepare your questions. ...
Avoid “yes” or “no” answers. ...
Prepare, but be spontaneous. ...
Get the interviewee comfortable. ...
Don't give out specific questions in advance. ...
Have them repeat your question. ...
Proper positioning of interviewee. ...
Keep your mouth shut.
Ask for final comment. ...
Don’t stop filming when the interview is “over”. ...


Jun 21, 2016

DIY Doco is an interactive broadband website that encourages students to explore the elements, process and storytelling of documentary filmmaking. It is media rich with video clips, text, sound, graphics and activities that students can interact with, edit and create. Combining practical example, interviews with leading documentary makers and a series of interactive tools, this is a process driven site that hands students the opportunity to investigate documentary storytelling with the voice of Julia Zemiro (Rockwiz) as the documentary guide.

Click here to access

Radio Rookies DIY Toolkit: How To Do Vox Pop

Jul 11, 2018 - - 1
Radio Rookies DIY Toolkit: How To Do Vox Pop

Radio Rookies is a New York Public Radio initiative that provides teenagers with the tools and training to create radio stories. This video provides an introduction to doing Vox Pops.

Jul 11, 2018 - - 3
Radio Rookies DIY: Educators Guide to Teaching Interviewing Skills | Radio Rookies | WNYC

One of the first skills Radio Rookies learn in our workshops is how to conduct interviews with people on the street, aka: “Vox Pop”, short for vox populi, a Latin phrase meaning “voice of the people.”

Approaching total strangers can be very scary, but in this do-it-yourself (DIY) video Radio Rookies graduates give tips and interviewing techniques that will help you be successful at getting people to answer your questions.

Jun 21, 2016 - - 34
Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work - Center for Media and Social Impact

Aufderheide, P., Chandra, M., and Jaszi, P. (2009). Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. Washington, DC: American University Center for Social Media.

This study provides a map of perceived ethical challenges that documentary filmmakers—directors and producer-directors—in the United States identify in the practice of their craft. It summarizes the results of 45 long-form interviews in which filmmakers were asked simply to describe recent ethical challenges that surfaced in their work. This baseline research is necessary to begin any inquiry into ethical standards because the field has not yet articulated ethical standards specific to documentary. These interviews demonstrate, indeed, a need for a more public and focused conversation about ethics before any standards emerging from shared experience and values can be articulated.

Documentary filmmakers identified themselves as creative artists for whom ethical behavior is at the core of their projects. At a time when there is unprecedented financial pressure on makers to lower costs and increase productivity, filmmakers reported that they routinely found themselves in situations where they needed to balance ethical responsibilities against practical considerations. Their comments can be grouped into three conflicting sets of responsibilities: to their subjects, their viewers, and their own artistic vision and production exigencies.

Filmmakers resolved these conflicts on an ad-hoc basis and argued routinely for situational, case-by-case ethical decisions. At the same time, they shared unarticulated general principles and limitations. They commonly shared such principles as, in relation to subjects, “Do no harm” and “Protect the vulnerable,” and, in relation to viewers, “Honor the viewer’s trust.”

Filmmakers observed these principles with widely shared limitations. In relation to subjects, they often did not feel obliged to protect subjects who they believed had themselves done harm or who had independent access to media, such as celebrities or corporate executives with their own public relations arms. In relation to viewers, they often justified the manipulation of individual facts, sequences, and meanings of images, if it meant telling a story more effectively and helped viewers grasp the main, and overall truthful, themes of a story.

Finally, filmmakers generally expressed frustration in two areas. They daily felt the lack of clarity and standards in ethical practice. They also lacked support for ethical deliberation under typical work pressures.

This survey demonstrated that filmmakers generally are acutely aware of moral dimensions of their craft, and of the economic and social pressures that affect them. This study demonstrates the need to have a more public and ongoing conversation about ethical problems in documentary filmmaking. Filmmakers need to develop a more broadly shared understanding of the nature of their problems and to evolve a common understanding of fair ways to balance their various obligations.


Jun 21, 2016 - - 22
Enter the Edit: A Crash Course On Structuring Social-Issue Documentary

_This is the second in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer.

Kim Roberts, A.C.E., speaks about her work in the social issue documentary realm. She has edited some of the most influential films of the last 10 years, including Food, Inc., Waiting For Superman, and The Hunting Ground, that have inspired me and many other filmmakers to explore the possibilities of documentary and social action. We discuss everything from how she started out working on these types of films to how she balances character, information, story, structure, objectivity and ethics standards.

Nov 18, 2016 - - 19
Documentary Filmmaking: Truth or Fiction?

In a world of tight schedules and limited budgets, real people are more often than not getting turned into underpaid actors. How documentary filmmaking set the stage for reality TV...

Jun 21, 2016 - - 22
Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

Documentary film can encompass anything from Robert Flaherty's pioneering ethnography Nanook of the North to Michael Moore's anti-Iraq War polemic Fahrenheit 9/11, from Dziga Vertov's artful Soviet propaganda piece Man with a Movie Camera to Luc Jacquet's heart-tugging wildlife epic March of the Penguins.