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Where film and journalism collide

Conference will discuss the two storytelling methods

As documentary films gain more mainstream appeal, especially among adult audiences no longer wowed by box-office heartthrobs and teen comedies, Columbia has emerged as a cinematic city of choice for nonfiction fans.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. With Mizzou’s growing film studies major and journalism school — set against the backdrop of the city’s booming, eight-year-old True/False Film Fest — Columbia is a natural breeding ground for conversations about similarities and differences between journalistic and documentary storytelling. A December 2011 conference will bring the discussions together.

Stephanie Craft, associate professor of journalism, and Brad Prager, associate professor of German, are planning the conference, funded by a Mizzou Advantage grant. Film studies scholars, journalism researchers and film critics will discuss the ethics and changing formats in documentaries and journalism.

The conference will raise questions, such as: Where do journalism ethics and documentary ethics meet, if at all? Although documentary filmmakers are not always aiming to provide a balanced account, Craft says there’s some indication that the public is open to this type of advocacy in journalism, too. Blogs and social media have somewhat legitimized the idea of journalists sharing their opinions.

The conference also will explore the implications of journalism being produced by institutions versus documentaries being produced free from institutional ties or with some influence from the project’s funders. These discussions become more important to society as documentaries increasingly offer investigative stories traditionally in the realm of journalism.

“There are at least three cable networks with 24-hour news, but no one takes the time to look at anything in-depth,” Prager says. “There’s a hunger for real investigative stories.”

As Craft points out: “Two people yelling at each other is cheaper than sending someone to Libya.”

As a result of the conference, Craft and Prager plan to produce a scholarly publication, which will be one of the first to deal exclusively with the overlap of journalism and documentary film. The project will also sponsor a public panel at True/False 2012 and could spur the formation of a new documentary film course at Mizzou.

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