Giles Trendle, NYF Advisory Board member and former Managing Director of Al Jazeera English. Under his leadership, Al Jazeera English took home Broadcaster of the Year for seven consecutive years.

Content POV: Giles Trendle

New York, NY | January 08, 2024


Amidst news avoidance, information overload and diminishing trust in news, the art of visual storytelling continues to offer a potent method to engage and inform audiences.

In 1949 George Orwell published his dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ envisioning a totalitarian world dominated by a ‘Big Brother’ autocrat.

Seventeen years earlier, Aldous Huxley had published his own bleak view of a society in which freedom is stifled by conditioned conformity in his novel ‘Brave New World’.

It was Huxley’s vision that author Neil Postman, in his book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, judged to be far more prescient.

Writing before the widespread availability of the internet, Postman, with his own foresight, stated: ‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.’

Were Huxley to return from the grave, he might well look on in horrified fascination - and with a certain sense of ‘I told you so’ - at certain aspects of today’s technology-driven world, with smartphones and the internet providing a constant stream of information, entertainment and distraction.

Within this world, the field of journalism is increasingly challenged to maintain its credibility and its relevancy amid transformative disruption driven by new technologies and changing audience habits.

Selective news avoidance is high in many countries, according to the 2023 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, as more people shun what they see as a relentless cycle of doom-and-gloom headlines.

Another contributing factor to avoidance is a sense of information overload. Interestingly, a study from nine years ago revealed that a single Sunday edition of The New York Times contains more information than typical 19th-century citizens faced in their entire lifetime.

According to the Pew Research Center, people increasingly find the news media untrustworthy or biased, a perception that seems to be contributing to a decline in engagement with traditional news brands.

Video-based content networks like TikTok and Instagram are increasingly becoming important news sources for many people worldwide, according to the Reuters Institute report, which adds that younger generations now tend to pay more attention to influencers or celebrities than journalists when consuming news.

Despite such challenges to the news industry, it is hard to think of professional journalism – factual, accurate and impartial - as anything other than indispensable to an informed and enlightened society.

The daily bulletins, comprising reports, analyses, and discussions, remain elemental to news coverage. And while the quick, easily digestible formats of short news videos on social media continue to gain popularity, there is, by contrast, an additional, longer form of journalism that should not be overlooked: the observational documentary.

This unique form of visual storytelling is nonfiction ‘fly on the wall’ filmmaking that aims to capture realistic, everyday life without intrusion and so provide an authentic portrayal of subjects and their environments.

The observational documentary is, in essence, an art of factual storytelling providing viewers with a glimpse into what is happening in the world.

We all love stories. Since ancient times, sitting in caves around fires, humans have been drawn to storytelling as a means of seeking connection, understanding and meaning. Narratives, passed down through generations, have shaped cultures and conveyed wisdom. Stories have the power to enthrall, captivate and convey complex ideas in a compelling manner.

Often character-led, observational documentaries can connect with audiences on a deeper emotional level. When people see how events or circumstances directly impact individuals or communities, they are more likely to relate to and understand the significance of another’s predicament.

Such storytelling is immersive, unvarnished and often unmediated: without the need for a reporter or ‘voice of God’ narration. 

Adopting a longer narrative arc, observational documentaries can enhance news coverage by providing greater context, exploring universal themes and offering distinctive perspectives on current affairs that are either making headlines or consistently on the news agenda.

Additionally, and significantly, these documentaries provide an opportunity for those at the heart of the story to authentically narrate their own experiences, in their own voice, empowering them with ownership of their narrative.

While observational documentaries offer valuable insights and authenticity, it is important to acknowledge that they come with their own set of challenges.

Such long-form content may not always align with the preferences of more ratings-driven media outlets which often prioritise shorter segments and faster-paced bulletins believing that this approach will both retain and attract audiences.

Observational documentaries may get pulled from other TV schedules when breaking news and rolling coverage of major events rightfully take precedence.

The storylines of such documentaries may require a longer commitment to on-location filming, greater involvement from contributors, and lengthier post-production. In other words, a higher cost compared to normal newsgathering procedures.

Editorially, due diligence is essential for any potential issues of bias - especially in films covering a controversial issue where a single character may represent only one side of a debate.

Despite such challenges, the observational documentary, when done well, stands as a powerful complement to news coverage enriching output with broader range, deeper insight and a profound sense of humanity.

This form of storytelling remains a creative way to captivate and inform audiences about our world - even reaching those who may not typically engage with or follow the daily news.

The well-crafted observational documentary can constitute the essence of impactful journalism, weaving narratives that resonate and stories that linger in the hearts and minds of audiences.

In a world marked by increased consumer distraction, industry disruption and public distrust in the media, journalism - in its various forms - remains more important than ever. It serves as a bulwark against the sort of dystopia, envisioned by Huxley or Orwell, that none of us wish to witness.


Giles Trendle joined Al Jazeera English in 2006 as a commissioner for the weekly ‘Witness’ observational documentary strand that continues to bring world issues into focus through compelling human stories. He went on to become the channel’s Managing Director.