Beware of ‘Documentaries’

Not all are accurate, and some are downright misleading.

The cover story of this morning’s edition of U.S. News and World Report carries a headline that asks “Can documentaries save us?”  The article begins with a discussion of whether or not documentaries like Waiting for Supermanwhich examines what the producer believes are the failures in our system of public education, can help fix the ills of our society. It also covers Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth and other films such as Michael Moore’s various “documentaries.” 

My immediate concern was whether this film would be yet another distorted portrayal of serious social challenges produced for consumption in a nation where the average college-educated adult now reads only one book each year and many people have become accustomed to 30 second sound bytes.

While a brutal travel schedule, a penchant for spending time with my family and living my own life reduce my time in front of a television to a few hours each month, I am painfully aware of how much this means of disseminating information shapes the views of the majority of Americans. For example, in our pre tests for training sessions as well as our informal surveys of large groups of parents, students and educators, it is almost shocking to see how inaccurate the perceptions of many Americans are in relation to school shootings. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated a decrease in the K-12 school homicide rate in the United States over the past several decades, yet the average American perceives a dramatic increase. An intensive focus by the media on this topic, combined with extremely questionable statistical data sometimes cited as fact by reporters, bloggers and others, has overcome day-to-day realities and more reliable data.

As I read about this new film, I recall an intelligent, well-educated and well meaning co-worker from another division at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency advising me that all of the school safety project personnel should go to the theater to watch Michael Moore’s Bowling for ColumbineI was surprised to learn that a video clip of my son performing our concealed weapons demonstration was featured in the film though he had never given permission to appear in the film.

As I viewed the movie, I was immediately struck at the similarity in technique and approach to the propaganda films developed by the United States, England, Nazi Germany and other countries during World War II. These movies typically contained some kernel of truth but also lacked forthrightness and accuracy, instead relying heavily on emotional appeal to unite citizens of their countries in supporting all out war against their enemies. While there are differences in the content and style of these films from nation to nation, the frequent distortion of facts can be seen even in our own country’s films and cartoons. For example, depictions of Japanese as stupid, buck toothed and wearing small round thick glasses  was an effort to dehumanize the enemy and are almost astounding in retrospect.

I recall thinking of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine as I watched Michael Moore’s take on the issues concerning school safety. Hitler’s films helped to justify to millions of Germans aggressions that killed millions of innocent men, women and children by the Nazis. Though Moore’s film was far from being this sinister and was most likely done with at least some good intent, his highly distorted explanations of the roots of violence in our schools, the inaccurate contrast between American schools and Canadian schools would be comical if they did not shape the thinking of many people. 

The bigger concern is how this type of thinking leads to misguided actions because flawed information often creates flawed decision making. The thunderous applause by the audience at the conclusion of Bowling for Columbine instantly revealed to me how out of step I was with the bulk of the people in the room.

I have not seen Waiting for Superman, but I pray that it is a more thoughtfully researched, accurate and helpful commentary than Bowling for Columbine.  In a society that is flooded with poor quality information on a host of critical topics, more hype and distortion is the last thing our schools need to face a myriad of challenges.

Social documentaries can be a viable and thought-provoking mechanism for positive change, as demonstrated by We are the People We Have Been Waiting For. This film raises valid questions about education while providing positive suggestions rather than attempting to generate anger and lay blame. I am not sure that all such films set forth on this path. 

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Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at mike@weakfish.org. Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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