Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



SAGE Publications


Documentaries are nonfiction programs that convey experience, provide information, and offer analysis. Many memorable and respected programs in American television journalism were documentaries. In part this is because documentaries offer journalists the luxury of more airtime to explore a single topic in greater depth than the shorter-format evening news or newsmagazine programs. In addition, documentarians are often freer to express their own conclusions on controversial issues than beat reporters, who are more constrained by the demands of objectivity and balance.

Although the line between documentary and docudrama is often blurry, documentaries are less likely to dramatize or re-enact events. In contrast to talk shows, documentaries aim to go beyond “talking heads” offering opinions to convey the lived experience of people, places, and events. Documentary makers usually construct their programs from some combination of recordings in the field, compilations of archival materials, interviews, graphics, and animations. Many types of broadcast documentary have emerged over the years, including investigative, social, political, historical, cultural, biographical, diary, and those focused on nature.

Chapter of

Encyclopedia of Journalism


Christopher H. Sterling
C. Whitney

Included in

Communication Commons


To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.