Talk originally given at Davis Library Research Hub, April 5, 2017.
I’d like to begin my talk with a special thank you to the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative for funding five hours a week of mental processing and experimentation during my 2016-2017 fellowship. To Davis Library’s own Kristan Shawgo for shepherding my fellowship and introducing me to other fine community members like herself, and to my new dissertation committee chair Dr. Bernie Herman for helping me puzzle through an idea I’d been struggling with for months. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the valuable influence of Jaimie Baron’s essay “The Image as Direct Quotation: Identity, Transformation, and the Case for Fair Use” on my thesis. [UPDATE: I came across the 1996 essay, “A Historian’s Perspective on Archives and the Documentary Process,” in the American Archivist, by the late oral historian Clifford Kuhn, where upon reading, I believe I have found my new best friend. I cannot forget Miriam Posner: “A dataset stands at several levels removed from its subject.” from “How Is A Digital Project Like a Film?” The Arclight Guidebook to Media History and the Digital Humanities, edited by Charles R. Acland and Eric Hoyt, pp. 184-194.]
My talk is entitled “Grounded Truth and Showing Your Work: Citing Primary Sources in Documentary Works.”
To say it plainly, along the way I will tease out why makers of nonfiction and documentary works for television or theatrical release or online, who allude to or repurpose archival materials, haven’t by in large cited their sources as text-based authors are meant to do. I found clues hiding in the film and television industry’s best practices, histories of the footnote, documentary film theory, ground truth theory and practice, Digital Humanities, and moving image archive theory. I also asked myself the question put forth to me when I accepted this fellowship — how might a digital tool assist the answering of a humanities-based question? I identified some innovative efforts to emulate, and discovered ways in which video annotation tools proven their utility in the K-12 and university classroom group projects, as professional development aids for teachers, and as collaboration tools for teams working remotely. My aim is showing how adopting these tools may have broader pedagogical and scholarly uses.
The initial key to anyone caring about this topic other than me, I foresee, is advocating for citing sources as part of media literacy efforts and ultimately even the review process for documentary multimedia works produced as alternative dissertations or tenure cases. After I make my case as it stands presently, I also will demonstrate how a tool might be utilized for interactive citation, why I chose a particular app, and quickly review those I eliminated.
I should also say that today I’m speaking to only a subset of a potentially more complex set of theoretical issues. The implications of what I’m proposing exceed nonfiction and documentary as genres, but here’s what I can tackle in an hour. I’m working out ideas in front of you.
Basic Terminology and Concepts
To begin and get us all on the same page… I thought I’d start with some basic terminologies and concepts before I take us down a more conceptual path. Throughout the presentation I will use all three terms citation, footnote, and annotation. While they are used sometimes interchangeably, I intend to stick pretty closely to their respective definitions.
What is Ground Truth? In reference to both military personnel and foreign correspondents, it loosely means boots on the ground and direct observation and for the latter, in regard to storytelling, reporting the voices of local residents in an area, rather than information only provided by inference, or second-hand analysis. It foregrounds, in practice, the benefit of multiple visions/narratives/perspectives. Here is the OED definition as well as quotes from different fields’ usages.
Annotations We Know and Love
In a literary context, I think it’s instructive to begin with how authors creatively present sources in textual works. Here we have a book made up of almost entirely primary sources surrounding a 19th century murder case, re-typed to unify the formatting of the book, in lieu of a reproduction of the documents as an images. We know Michel Foucault “collected” the documents from archives and libraries around France, but he obscures where to locate them item specifically.
The same here, documents reformatted and re-typed for publication. Ulrich analyzed Martha Ballard’s actual diaries, the source of her historical examination, and we edge a little closer to discoverability here but only because she mentions they’re located at the Maine State Library in the Epilogue on page 346. But at least she supplies it.
Some authors annotate their texts with secondary sources and theorists who inform their work. It’s a little hard to see here, Nelson just writes the names of her references next to the text where she converses with their ideas over time and space.
And here we have a fully annotated version of Alice in Wonderland, in which the notes both enrich and disrupt the reading of the text. Gardner reproduces, on occasion, images of the primary sources, but mostly they are newly typeset and offer few indications as to locations.
Moving on to documentary or nonfiction moving images now. It’s actually been pretty difficult to find methodologies and examples to emulate in this category. More to the point, if I’m not finding much in the way of makers citing their works, it sets up an expectation that it’s not done.
However, there is some precedent in journalism… so first, I turned to guidelines and best practices for journalists and nonfiction television and short doc program producers, what we might consider a vanguard of the day-to-day practice of vetting (one would hope) and keeping track of both on- and off-screen testimonies and presumably archival sources. Archival sources likely have their own team when it gets to this level of sophistication.
Here I quote the “Journalistic Guidelines” for Frontline. The warning here is to be prepared to show your work. Off screen of course, to executives and fellow journalists presumably, perhaps lawyers. But what about viewers? I’ll return to Frontline again because they are working on this issue. I should say that what I’m not discussing today is the obligation filmmakers and news journalists have to their subjects. It’s a much broader topic, with a whole different set of ethical considerations. I would suggest if you’re interested a good place to start is with Center for Media & Social Impact’s website. Also, the report called Honest Truths by the School of Communication at American University which you can find there as well.
There are also a few poignant standards and rules I found that may point to reluctance, or actual inability, on the part of documentary filmmakers of television programs, to cite specific sources in such a way that viewers can study them. One: even for the list of libraries and other footage providers a maker wants to acknowledge by name, according to industry standards, they are limited to precise lengths of time, in minutes, for end credits. For instance, on BBC’s Channel 4, a thirty-minute show can include at maximum 25 seconds of credits, a seventy-minute, factual program can run with 30 seconds. Similar standards prevail here in the U.S. So there are real limitations in place which dictate why names zip by and we don’t know what image or clip came from which repository.
Interestingly exceptions include musical selections. ASCAP and BMI are mighty powerful. Sometimes a repository will be thanked and identified with some specificity for special permission granted to use a from a book or personal papers. These tend to be included only in the credits for longer-form works though.
Text on Screen
Archives listed in the end credits are not citations. They are acknowledgements and thank you’s.
All that said, what I am NOT talking about is this sort of list of repositories that appears on-screen as end credits, or as identifying labels or subtitles throughout. The first clip above is a from mini-series Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990, Blackside/PBS); and the second features a clip from the film The Black Power Mixtape (2011, Göran Olsson).
I’m also not talking about the title pages of books or newspaper headlines, or other inventive ways a maker may alert the viewer to a source (If he or she could track down the actual paper or its digital surrogate.)
What I am talking about is a good old-fashioned citation, a direct reference to a findable unique item, to a document another party can find and analyze. Then we might be able to ask what other photographs of this type are in the collection or on the contact sheet or set of negatives from which this comes? What might we glean from what a maker didn’t choose to include in his/her argument? You’ll get a chance to see this sort of on-screen citation at the end of the presentation.
Blind Faith in the Message
So why do I care so much about citations in documentary, nonfiction, and investigative works? For one, I believe citations play a collegial role connecting generations of makers, scholars and seekers of truth over time and across disciplines. Let me provide an example. If we broaden the intergenerational conversation between, for instance, today’s feminists and their foremothers to include exchanges on media formats, a significant part of our collective history is unveiled. Whether recorded off television, at a conference, or on the street, video/film/born-digital documents are often underrepresented in scholarly works in other disciplines beyond media studies, due to a perceived ephemerality and questionable evidentiary value. Often, at best, they are attractive supplements to headier, text-based work, or digital humanities projects. However, if we consider the historical and cultural conditions under which agents create these primary documents, there is a recognizable struggle–to be heard, seen, and ultimately respected–around which feminists can rally and recognize community.
In regard to collegiality more generally, as historian Anthony Grafton writes in The Footnote: A Curious History, “no one can ever exhaust the range of sources relevant to an important problem — much less quote all of them in a note […] moreover, every annotator rearranges materials to prove a point, interprets them in an individual way, and omits those that do not meet a necessarily personal standard of relevance. The very next person to review the same archival materials will probably line them up and sort them out quite differently.” I say, why stop at the textual?
Coming from another field, American film critic and theorist Bill Nichols asserts in Introduction to Documentary, “A verifiable, authentic image does not necessarily guarantee the validity of larger claims made about what the image represents or means.” One verifiable image, even cited and accounted for isn’t the point — what role did motivation play in a filmmaker’s individual choices? Not only does an “authenticated” image in a film or television news program take on a meaning simply due its juxtaposition to images around it, it is infused with intention upon creation. Whether shot by the filmmaker herself or borrowed from another completed work, improving a viewer’s ability to follow the bread crumbs back to an original source may enable review and future analysis of that choice.
One might push back and assert, well a documentary work is a creation, it’s art, its goal is meant to be compelling, and hopefully educational or a call to action. I’m in no way a professionally trained filmmaker, so I cannot fully appreciate the expense and the time commitment both project-wise and regarding life-long training in that craft. I also don’t question why, to date, makers tend to go with industry standards, and don’t feel compelled to open their arguments and editorial choices up to scrutiny by the public, politicians, and fellow artists.
Why, in an age when digitization and/or tools can facilitate experimentation, should we, in other disciplines continue on the same path and simply replicate their methods?
To be clear, these ideas have political implications as well. Over the course of the past year or so ruminating, the political climate in which we’ve found ourselves after the 2016 presidential election has changed. “Truth” is constantly in quotation marks, and evidence can be manipulated or disregarded for alternatives.
Consider how we disseminate information in the moving image form more today than at any time since the inception of film in the late 19th Century. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, more than three-fourths of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2021, mobile video traffic accounted for 60 percent of total mobile data traffic in 2016, internet video to TV streaming grew 50 % in 2015, and the amount of Video on Demand traffic in 2020 will be equivalent to 7.2 billion DVDs per month. Siloed video data seems an inevitability as we’ve returned to an age of media niches. Plus, a whole lot of arguments are beaming around the world every day as moving images, and few to none include citations for their sources. This combination leads to blind faith in the message.
I think the authors of the book Digital_Humanities might sum this idea up best: “We struggle less to remember facts than we do to remember where and how to find them — and how to assess their validity.” I read that assertion to mean that people rely a heck of a lot on a documentarian’s or news station’s reputation and political leanings, and faith, to bolster or even replace the energy it takes to verify facts. I got to thinking a tool might help make verification easier, even if it puts the onus on the creator.
… and it would also be a paradigm shift in the way we think about triangulating, or if you will, crowdsourcing, evaluation of “truth”. Following ground truth theory to a next logical conclusion. My argument at its most simplistic looks like two triangulations working in combination. On the left I diagrammed in one corner ALL of the raw material — meaning archival sources as well as what they shot with a camera — that’s housed on tapes, film, or digital files. On another corner is all the material actually used in the final production, in other words, the basis of their case. Third is a truth or what one gains by analyzing their selections.
“Because films are human constructs, we can expect that any one element in a film will have some justification for being there. This justification is the motivation for that element.” write David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in Film Art. Thus, if triangulation of data essentially means more than one set of eyes on evidence, I argue looking at the source material from which a “moment” is drawn, strengthens the filmmaker’s argument. Bolsters artistic license even. “Truth” may be the maker’s aim and claim, but it’s also based on subjective selection.
Anthony Grafton humanizes the real-world implications of citation, and by proxy, selection, when he writes that it “locates the production of the work in question in time and space, emphasizing the limited horizons and opportunities of its author.” The triangle on the right suggests if I poise a video annotation tool, for instance, between the maker and his/her audience, it acts as the lever to look under the hood at any missed opportunities, intentional or unintentional distortions. Without a doubt there are a multitude of factors that affect a maker’s ability to craft the argument she wants: a repository denied use of an image or footage, or it was too expensive, or she shot certain footage under adverse circumstances or tapes were lost or obfuscated, or an interviewee refused to speak with her. All the more reason to show her work.
And distortions do happen. If a maker includes repurposed found or other kinds archival footage/documents in particular, Jamie Baron implies, in her book The Archive Effect, it should be done with caution. She proposes that reusing this material introduces the potential for “intentional disparity.” This disparity isn’t necessarily willful deception on the maker’s part, she explains, but actually relies on how a viewer perceives vestiges of original intent and/or production context inherent in an old photo or clip of footage. Thus, reading an artifact from the past out of its original context creates an “archival effect,” whereby we view “old” as imbued with a truthiness that we may unquestioningly accept. We find this sort interplay between archival footage and newly shot material in countless compilation films such as The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980, Connie Field) or O.J.: Made in America (2016, Ezra Edelman/ESPN Films).
Citations 19-21. Courtesy of Southern Folklife Collection
At this juncture I want to show what I’ve meant by moments plucked from another context. Here I’ve edited together side by side, a few minutes from final production of George Stoney’s The Shepherd of the Night Flock (1975, George C. Stoney), with outtakes from the same day of shooting on the right.  Here I’d like to thank the Southern Folklife Collection staff for lending me these.
Similar to the way in which compilation films are made of selections from several sources, single-authored documentaries can be curated to a large extent, or solely, from hours of footage shot by the maker him or herself, or by a team. Thus citing sources in this situation could entail citing a particular tape or digital file a moment came from and then offering access to it. I know Ken Burns keeps a great portion of his personal archive of outtakes, B-roll, and other archival elements here at UNC. Documentary filmmaker George Stoney donated the same for his older works. Moreover, the UCLA Film and Television archive has a treasure trove of outtakes and film elements that filmmakers’ donated, as does the Academy Film Archive, Chicago’s Media Burn, Oddball Films, Schlesinger Library, and Harvard Film Archive.
We might ask where, when and under what circumstances was the footage shot, or its provenance? In her essay “Locating Archives within the Landscape,” Jeannette Bastian extends the meaning of provenance as “In a wider sense, as a referent to the community or society in which the records were created.”  Doesn’t that get closer to ground truth?
To think of it another way, along the same lines as Lev Manovich lays out in his 1999 essay “Database as a Symbolic Form,” all raw footage a filmmaker shoots or borrows from other sources make up a database of possible moments out of which comes a linear argument.  Consider that the database equates to the macro view, the individual clips actually used as the micro. We need both views to get at ground truth. Selection means some data is left out…
Nixon, before resignation and full speech, August 8, 1974
Donald Trump recorded in never aired raw footage, 2005
I am somewhat comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines… In fact over the past year I’ve detected a bit of a zeitgeist around this topic, increasingly so, as you might imagine during our current political climate.
For me, it started in earnest back May 2016, when I read comments on a Facebook thread instigated by collector/archival footage provider/compilation filmmaker and instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Rick Prelinger. In his post, he rightly questioned why archival footage goes unacknowledged but for a company’s name in the end credits. The provocation triggered quite a few reactions from filmmakers, lawyers, archivists, researchers, journalists and scholars who chimed in.
He wrote: “I find it amazing that documentary filmmakers are accorded such great authority by audiences, reviewers and scholars when they are not obligated to cite their sources (especially egregious when archival materials are used) or the authority for their statements. If I wrote an academic book or a peer-reviewed paper without citing sources I would be toast. And even if I wrote a thoughtful piece for a newspaper or popular periodical, their fact-checkers would be all over me asking me where I got this or that fact. I don’t really know what this says about documentary film, other than to confirm that it is generally a privileged form of fiction.”
People on the thread offered leads as to where I should look for examples. A journalist at the University of Southern California mentioned Frontline again to me, and as I followed the producers’ efforts, some months later they produced and interactive script for an episode entitle, “Trump’s Road to the White House.” Their aim with the pilot project, in their own words is two-fold: “to bring new layers of transparency to our journalism. We’re also providing new ways to navigate and share the film.” As you can see it’s annotated with additional related documentation including primary documents, other interviews, etc., and a transcript synched with the video’s timecode. Frontline’s turned to Colophon, a tool developed at Duke for the transcription and synchronization parts.
Late 2016 I had an enlightening conversation with Penny Lane, another person on the Facebook thread, about this project and also why some filmmakers are hesitant to cite sources. Some notes from our interview are pretty revealing. When I asked if she had intended to reveal the veracity of her assertions and sources from inception of the project and she said no, only after it was in post-production. We both agreed that keeping track off all of one’s sources over what is often a multi-year process: it is a time-consuming, and detail-oriented work. She also mentioned that filmmakers are fearful of legal issues arising if an image hasn’t been cleared properly (despite due diligence), for instance. Makers don’t want the struggle of Fair Use. Also one place a work may be in the public domain, yet another place charges beyond reproduction costs. Errors and Omissions Insurance is expensive. All equate to a disincentive to cite sources.
Her impetus for creating the website “Notes on NUTS!” for her film NUTS!, she says, was discovering her film is a lot “truthier” than most docs. And so she felt “a special ethical tug to tell people what parts of the film are true, or false, or bullshit, and so on.” She has written quite a bit about her process for Filmmaker magazine and others.
I found this one on my own. Gary Ross made this site for his historical fiction feature film Free State of Jones (2016). He writes of the project: “In this site you will be able to navigate through the entire movie, click the areas that interest you, and see a brief explanation of the historical facts that informed the screenplay. If you are more curious about that part of the movie, we have footnoted the paragraph to see sources on which it is based. But footnotes themselves can be misleading, so if you want to see the entire primary source, you can click again and be transported to the original document. We hope this is helpful, maybe even fun.” Ross even cites the repository, so you can locate an item.
Keep an eye out.
Moving on to tools… Here are the tools I’ve opted to mock-up and why. First off, I rejected anything proprietary and/or that requires a costly subscription. I also opted for open source, with varying degrees of user-friendliness on the back-end and the front end, and what looked to have a sustainable business model or institutional support. I also thought it was imperative that all scale down to hand-held devices. Moreover, super imperative, is that one can export the underlying data out of the tool. That way if the tool goes poof, it doesn’t take your citations with it. Most important to me was making sure the citation could be hyperlinked to a finding aid, original film, or at least, along with a unique ID, a link to the repository. YES hyperlinks do change and die. Like any guardian of a website since the beginning of the internet, you have to check them periodically. Citations in books are never updatable, mind you, unless new editions allow for it.
I will show you what I’ve mocked-up in inverse order of difficulty to use by the maker, according to how many steps it takes:
First is Prospect: born and maintained in UNC’s Digital Innovation Lab. It is a plugin for WordPress, and available to all students with a free account here at UNC. Pros here: Again, somewhat met my specifications for easy use by a viewer, but it’s still not totally straightforward. They are working on that aspect, I understand. The annotation function works within an exhibit view in Prospect, ideally contextualized by other items, or as a simplified record view. It supports hyperlinks where I need them. Cons: the player can’t be made bigger as of yet, and it only supports YouTube. And again, you lose the annotations in full screen mode. Not very stylish as I have them mocked-up, but I think I could spiff up the design a bit. The process of importing and implementing the tool with annotation is a four-step process, but well documented by the Prospect team.
Scalar emanates from the The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC. A digital publishing platform first and foremost, BUT a robust annotation feature that allows for hyperlinking out. As you can see I’ve included the unique ID’s, repository, and failing a finding aid or catalog reference, the repository’s contact page to go with. Pros: it met my specifications for easy use by a viewer. Also, like a regular website, you can add additional contextualization on the same page. Works with Vimeo and YouTube. Cons: adding hyperlinks to annotations requires a two-step process that I had to figure out on my own: one to create the annotation, and another to format it with hyperlinks if you want more than just text. Annotations are not available in full screen mode. It isn’t super stylish, but a very large viewing area and an academic feel about it.
Next is my personal favorite, H5P: In the developer’s words it allows one to add richer HTML5 Content in Existing Publishing Platforms, meaning it’s a plugin for WordPress, Moodle, and Drupal. Joubel, an open-source collaborative effort out of Norway, developed H5P. With I created on-screen citations which link out. With a fearless spirit, it’s really rather easy to teach yourself. It literally, after loading the plugin into WordPress, took me a ½ hour to figure out how to use it for my purposes. And annotations are visible, obviously, in full-screen mode.
[Update 09/08/2017: In recent months, Vimeo has released video interaction tool set. I requires a steep monthly fee, so I’m holding off for the time being. BUT I believe if there are no limitations as to how many times you employ the “mobile-friendly cards,”this could very much work for my purposes. https://vimeo.com/blog/post/drive-engagement-with-new-video-interaction-tools]
As I near the end here, I feel I should address and elephant in the room: “Wouldn’t footnotes, citations, or annotations (whatever you want to call them) disrupt my viewing pleasure by interrupting the narrative arc?” The answer to my own question above is YES.
Chuck Zerby, in his history of the footnote, The Devil’s Details, explains that disruption by a tiny reference number or an asterisk while reading is “the main job of the footnote […] to interrupt. Simply interrupt.” As I’ve pursued my line of inquiry about tools, I’ve also tried to stay cognizant of Johanna Drucker’s assertion, from her essay “Graphical Approaches to the Digital Humanities”, that “Graphics come with arguments in their form,” and thus if we apply these two assertions to the motion/graphical application of citation, then, yes, I am making an argument for disruption as a learning tool. Drucker also advocates for knowing what meta-messages you are helping to perpetuate by employing a given visualization design or tool. I guess I’m advocating for disruption. Must we take filmmaker at her word?
All we’ve seen so far, my and the other solutions I’ve shown are ancillary to the primary work in the form of websites or a side-by-side annotation. Penny Lane and Gary Ross expect that you’ve already seen their films before you discover their websites. Frontline at least offers the video right there on the same page, but also wants you to jump off the page to look at documents or skip around the video. They still maintain the primacy of the theatrical experience by offering the complete work on TV and online uninterrupted. When I suggested that video annotation could accompany a documentary to Penny Lane, just like a special feature on a DVD, she reminded me, that after a theatrical run, streaming outlets like Vimeo, YouTube, Amazon Prime are the revenue streams that allow makers to recoup some of their investment, and they do not as of yet allow for such a thing as annotation. Also, distributors dictate that only up to 3 minutes of a work can be made available online for free. So these are some of the real-life stumbling blocks for professionals. It may perhaps require citations for feature films remain behind a paywall (online or on cable) or some other way of providing subsidized educational access like Kanopy.
I persist in working through if “ancillary” necessarily has to mean “secondary”? I advocate for redefining its purpose as intervention, or catalyst for a paradigm shift at least in academia. Can disrupted viewing be pleasurable? I think so!
…and I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts. Frankly, by publishing or otherwise exposing your data, you are extending a conversation.
If students are increasingly assigned media making projects, why not require citations for primary sources, obviously, or secondary sources, even, if the projects presumably draw upon other course readings. Citing sources at the end of the ubiquitous accompanying paper, separates them from their referents like credits running at the end of a film. How might this somehow improve how scholarly, research media projects are evaluated by both instructors and tenure committees alike? And I’m talking all disciplines here, not just media studies or English departments.
And finally this… Ann Hornaday wrote in her June 23, 2016 Washington Post article “Documentary filmmakers need to be accountable to their sources and viewers […] the audience needs to remember that nonfiction filmmaking is an art form — not journalism, or a Wikipedia entry, or just-the-facts testimony that would pass muster in a court of law. The balance between truth claims and artistic license — as well as ethical duties to sources and viewers — will always coexist in creative tension; it’s in how those questions are resolved that we see the difference between a good filmmaker and a great one. The audience does well to supply its own grains of salt, but it’s incumbent upon documentary-makers to make sure that we gasp out of discovery and delight — not because we feel deceived.”
[UPDATE and ADDENDUM — November 19, 2019]
On Sunday, November 18, 2018, Fox’s The Simpsons (S30, Ep7) cited sources on-screen for an assertion the writers (via Marge’s friend and hairdresser) make about how some of the most successful sellers of Tupperware in recent years have been drag queens. See the following screen grabs from right after Marge responds, “What? That can’t be true.”
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[Subseries 5.2.], in the George C. Stoney Papers #4970, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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YouTube. ”The ability to add or edit annotations ended May 2.” https://www.youtube.com/my_videos_annotate?video_referrer=watch&v=mlQKzhbnhU8 (accessed May 5, 2017). [UPDATE] YouTube doesn’t support adding or editing annotations as of May 2, 2017.
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