March 1, 2018

Mapping the Documentary-Journalism Landscape

Journalists and documentary filmmakers often follow parallel paths when stalking their similar prey. They interview witnesses, build stories around characters, dig into the past and compile facts. Along that landscape, they often encounter the same obstacles, and a common path can help get them to their destinations.

This guide is designed to help filmmakers find information and make decisions that journalists make every day. Whether it be questions of what rights the First Amendment guarantees, what rights to privacy people can expect or what ethical decisions must be made when telling the stories of someone else’s life, this guide lays out a way to find that information.

Each section begins with a brief summary of the topic, highlighting the main points to know and detailing some specific steps a filmmaker might take when encountering that topic. Following the summary, there are links to resources to learn more about the topic, read additional opinions or different points of view or find forms or other tools to facilitate field work.

This document is meant to grow and change with the times. Like any good journalism, the copy will continue to be edited and resources updated and expanded. A list of credits appears at the end of the guide. Please contact the editor with requests or suggestions for the future of the guide.

NOTE: This guide is intended to provide background and basic knowledge about journalistic norms and practices. It is not meant to be a legal handbook or a substitute for competent legal advice. Filmmakers should consult their own attorneys when they have serious questions regarding the legal ramifications of their work.

Access the digital guide at