The Plague of Sensationalism in the Mainstream Media

By Isabella Woods, Freelance Writer

Investigative journalism and documentary films go hand in hand together, but with mainstream media increasingly controlled by corporate interests many important issues are falling by the wayside. There is such a wide spectrum of issues that could, and should, be discussed through documentary films, but many fail to see the light of day because of one factor; they cannot get the funding.

One of the main problems is that because documentary filmmakers want their films to be seen by the masses then they have to approach mass media institutions in an effort to get them shown. The majority of mainstream media broadcasters are companies that sell advertising space to create revenue, and so want documentary films that attract a large amount of viewers. Sensationalist films that have shock value or are construed in a way that makes people want to watch them are almost always chosen over films that uncover a little known about social issue in a faraway country.

The problem with sensationalist documentaries

Instead of focusing on important social issues, or uncovering situations that require humanitarian aid, to get funding some documentary filmmakers are turning to sensationalism. By hyping up the topics they discuss they can hope for more viewers, but this usually comes at the cost of real objective journalism, and can even end up presenting the facts in a way that misinforms the viewer.

Sensationalist documentaries often present an issue in a scary way or make claims that are not, or cannot be proven. By doing this they attract lots of curious viewers, but often the viewer is no better informed about the issue than before they watched the documentary. The audience may well be entertained while relaxing on their franklin couches in front of the television, but they will probably not have learnt anything useful. By being controversial and presenting facts in a trivial or tabloid fashion, documentaries become less about educating and empowering people and more about entertainment and theatre.

Independent and conscientious filmmakers

Media bias is rife throughout the mainstream media, and unfortunately the situation does not seem to be getting any better. However, the advances in media technology and the use of websites as a platform to broadcast new documentary films means that there is still hope for the independent documentary filmmaker.

Documentary films that show a topic from a balanced point of view and don’t try to influence what the viewer believes are undoubtedly the best type of documentaries. Of course documentaries need to have some sort of opinion, and that usually comes from the documentary filmmaker themselves. But a good reporter of facts and events always presents both sides of an argument, whichever one they agree with, and also gives credibility to both sides. The hope should be to give people that don’t have a voice a way to communicate with the rest of the world, in a hope that the issues they face can be changed for the better.

Organisations making a difference

Fortunately there are people dedicating their time to producing relevant and truthful documentaries that try to give coverage of topics and concerns that may have never of been widely known about if it was not for their efforts.

Angry Man Pictures, a UK-based production company, is one of these independent documentary film makers that has not compromised its integrity. One of the films produced by the company is called ‘The Forgotten Children of the Congo,’ and focuses on the plight of street children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It brings up upsetting and hard to swallow facts about how the children are involved in witchcraft and cannibalism, and used as child soldiers by militant groups.

It’s ironic that this type of subject matter gets chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood movie industry, but documentaries showing the real thing are ignored by mainstream media outlets. Just look at the motion picture ‘Avatar’ for an example. It portrays an important real-life fact about how indigenous people across the world are exploited and abused by powerful corporations. But in order for it to become a hit at the box office the people have to become strange blue creatures and the hero that saves them is from the U.S. military. (In contrast, to read about one actual situation that parallels ‘Avatar’: Conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts )

This bias has not gone unnoticed, and there are groups of people all over the world trying to provide venues for the stories that are ignored by big media corporations to be heard. One place where people can see the hard work carried out by independent filmmakers on the big screen is at the Frontline Club in London. It is run by an ex-war correspondent who recognised independent filmmakers needed a place to show their work to people that are sick of mainstream media bias against issues that they choose not to cover.

The truth is that compelling documentaries that uncover real issues that affect the lives of people all over the world are being made every day. The problem is that not enough people get to see them. Hopefully documentary filmmakers will persevere and global audiences will tap into the power of the internet to see these films, instead of consuming what is served up to them by the mainstream media.