Why the Bourdain Fake Audios are a Problem for Journalism

We need to reckon with the different ethics of traditional reporting and many documentarians.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

People who care about journalism need to care about journalism ethics. The standard of ethics of the profession is a bedrock of trust—and ethical lapses only build on the gnawing problem of distrust.

So the brouhaha over an ethical misstep in the new Anthony Bourdain documentary, “Roadrunner” by Morgan Neville, has me worried, but not for the reason you might think.

What the Bourdain film controversy should remind us is that documentaries, which are often portrayed as just another modern form of journalism, frequently have ethical norms at some variance from much of the rest of reporting.

First, in case you missed it, a quick recap: Neville’s two hour film uses lot of audio of Bourdain, who frequently found himself in front of a microphone. But for a bit of an email Bourdain sent a friend there was, of course, no audio, so Neville manufactured it using artificial intelligence. And while refusing to specify which they are, he has acknowledged that there are two other similar fakes in his film, totaling about 45 seconds. No note is made in the film of the difference between these fake clips and the real ones elsewhere. In revealing this to the New Yorker, Neville sniffed, “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

In traditional news organizations, manufacturing source material would be a firing offense. In documentaries it is controversial, but by no means shunned.

Noted producer/director Gordon Quinn, who is at least admirably candid, calls the Bourdain episode “rather trivial.” For most journalists, the sin here resides in the fact that the audience is misled, but many documentarians insist that they are as much obligated to their subjects as to their audience. Quinn is again forthright: “we are not journalists, “ he declares, “our code of ethics is very different.” Another filmmaker, a winner of Peabodys and Emmys, told scholars writing a piece on ethics, “When I’m working on a doc, I try not to lie. But that doesn’t mean I don’t bend the truth.”

If a few seconds of phony audio were all, we could easily move past this kerfuffle. It is not, and we shouldn’t.

The same solicitude for people whose stories they tell leads some documentarians to show near-finished work to subjects, and to seek comment. While they generally don’t promise to make changes, many consider doing so, and have done so. Reporters aren’t supposed to do this.

A different relationship with funders

Beyond this, the very different business model of documentaries—most projects are financed one story at a time—has resulted in a sometimes very different relationship between documentarians and their funders, with stories often pitched before work begins in earnest, and with funders, thus unsurprisingly, having significant influence on which stories get told, and sometimes even in how they are told. Again, traditional journalistic practice would bar this. Best practice in nonprofit journalism, for instance, is not to pitch particular prospective stories or series to funders, or to accept funding for a story or a series, unless and until it has come to funder attention after it has begun to be published.

What difference does this all make? Different professions have different approaches to ethical matters. (Lawyers, for instance, are formally required to report ethical lapses by other lawyers.) If we understand that journalism and documentary filmmaking are distinct, does that take care of it? Not quite, I think.

Fields converging

The two fields are increasingly converging. News organizations like the New York Times (and ProPublica among many others) are increasingly active in documentaries. PBS remains a showcase for documentaries ranging from the traditionally journalistic (and superb) Frontline to POV, as well as a platform for NewsHour. Can we expect readers and viewers to understand that different ethical standards apply to one broadcast rather than another? Are news organizations themselves maintaining common standards across their various activities? (Let’s hope so). If they are, what are viewers to make of different ethical approaches to ostensibly similar filmmaking? Are we disclosing enough so that they can even tell the difference?

My fear, of course, is that readers and viewers will assume that the lowest ethical standard is the common denominator, that fake audio of Anthony Bourdain is as likely to be found on his old CNN shows as well as the documentary about him. (It is not.)

I have never been a documentary filmmaker; I have no desire to tell those who are what their standards should be. But I do think it would be in everyone’s interest, and especially in the interest of credible journalism, if those standards were made a good deal more transparent.

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