The Columbia Journalism Review makes a compelling case that we’re living in a Golden Age of documentaries and that filmmaking will soon eclipse longform journalism as a primary means of conveying complex information.

“What makes documentary film a better truth-delivery system than print? The most effective documentaries combine advocacy with immediacy. Film feels in the present tense, while print, striving for objectivity, lingers in the reflective past.”

It’s an interesting argument. But there are two types of documentaries: those filmed while a specific moment is taking place, and those that attempt to reconstruct a moment in the past. In other words, the immediacy isn’t necessarily a need to be present in the moment, but merely to display information in a particular manner.

It’s all in the eyes

It’s not the immediacy that makes them effective. What might make documentaries a stronger medium for conveying information is the human brain. Processing images with our eyes in a deeply ingrained process that stems back to survival. Reading text is a relatively addition to our skill sets, in an evolutionary sense. The difference is so significant that the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text.

The author goes on to make the case that while articles had been written about SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales, it wasn’t until the release of the film Blackfish that the awareness reached a critical level broadly affecting people’s opinions and consumer behavior. Good point.

“While one might introduce political or humanitarian causes into the mainstream through persuasion alone, they’re more effective when coupled with a stylish visual component and identifiable point of view.”

This is exactly what we’ve been arguing with the War on Stupid for years now. A conduit for effective information delivery to a broad audience requires a strong visual component. Text just can’t compete.

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