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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Documentaries: Journalism but not necessarily unbiased journalism

In general, documentaries’ have evolved as a distinguished genre and separated themselves from more entertainment-oriented Hollywood movies through a foundation of unbiased, fact-based journalism. 

However, documentaries that advocate for a specific cause do not always present an unbiased narrative.

Blackfish, a 2013 documentary, presents a harrowing narrative of whales in captivity, especially at SeaWorld–focusing on one event at SeaWorld where a whale killed its trainer.

Blackfish clearly presents an objective to engage people in the ongoing animal rights discussion through shocking footage of the trainers’ death and emotional interviews from previous SeaWorld trainers. It has sparked an intense discussion of animal rights and rallied activist groups.

The biased narrative is not the only ethical concern of the documentary that took in $2.1 million at the domestic box office.

Michael Cieply, writing for The New York Times, details another potential problem for Blackfish, which involves potential ethical and professional violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employee who investigated the trainer’s death in 2010.

The SeaWorld complaint said Ms. Padgett provided confidential documents from the safety review and a subsequent mediation to one of the film’s producers, Tim Zimmermann.

Cieply reported that SeaWorld “cited a government ethical code” which ensures that public officials do not endorse “private activity” in response to OSHA employee, Lara Padgett’s, support for the documentary’s public relations blow to SeaWorld via social media.

Padgett’s comments via social media included:

“Wow … take that Sea World!!!! They’ve got to be getting nervous now,” she wrote last July, after linking to a report, “Blackfish on the move in Europe.”

Blackfish’s official website describes the film as “a mesmerizing psychological thriller.” However, Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite described the film as an “80-minute airtight, fact-driven documentary” in an interview with an editorial coordinator at Sundance.

Cowperthwaite continued:

 I wanted it to feel like a detailed, truthful narrative and wanted to “show, not tell” audiences a story. In my opinion, we’re more inspired when we discover something on our own, than we are when we’re told how to think or feel.

Many people agree that Blackfish is bringing attention to a just cause. However, the means in which Blackfish presents a heavily skewed narrative while potentially facing other ethical violations do not reflect the strong journalistic qualities common of the documentary genre.

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