Reality TV is in a way like a documentary, because the viewer is led to believe that things are happening in real life just as it is being presented.
But the documentary usually opens with a narrator explaining to the audience why that audience should believe what is about to be shown. In the documentary "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," the viewers know that the documentary was done by a famous filmmaker, Martin Scorsese. There sits the famous rock singer, Bob Dylan, answering questions. This is definitely real to the audience. The audience sees Dylan in concert, the audience sees Dylan during press conferences at the beginning of his career when Dylan rejected the "mainstream" media's questions because those reporters did not understand his lyrics.
The point here is this documentary gives every indication of being real, whereas the movie with Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There," is a slick production that may or may not have honestly reflected what Dylan did or did not do during his career. Comparing "I'm Not There" with the documentary "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" is like comparing pure entertainment with objective journalism, because the documentary style used by Scorsese (which is an example of both "The Observational Mode" and "The Participatory Mode") leads the audience to totally believe everything that is being presented. Nothing against Cate Blanchett's acting (she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance) but a movie that is produced as an entertainment production has the license to fictionalize all it wants to.
The ethical issues in the "No Direction Home" documentary are very clearly established. The audience knows where Dylan was born, Hibbing Minnesota. The audience sees the typical small town American high school homecoming parade, and since just about everyone has been in high school at homecoming time, that is real and ethical to show the audience. The movie is typical of home movies. And then the documentary takes viewers to New York's Greenwich Village where Dylan began playing in coffee houses. But the ethical thing for Scorsese to do was interview a lot of people who knew Dylan back then.
So one by one, audiences see people like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and others, talking about what Dylan was like, what his attitude was, how well his folk music was accepted.
Now if Scorsese had created a story that wasn't true about Dylan, or interviewed someone who wasn't credible but claimed to have seen Dylan do something illegal like use drugs, the ethical part of the documentary would be wasted.
The assumption is that a good, ethical documentary can "engender tangible change." Why do a documentary if you're not going to make an important point? In the documentary "The Future of Food: What Every Person Should Know" (by Deborah Garcia, the widow of rock star Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead), the producers certainly want viewers to change their views on genetically engineered food. According to the Massachusetts School of Law, Garcia's film "Is acknowledged for its role in educating voters in Mendocino County, California"; the voters in that county passed "measure H" which bans genetically manufactured crops. This is a classic case of a documentary changing the minds of people, because before the documentary was shown widely to county voters, the polls showed that the measure might not pass. The documentary was made in 2004, and it goes into the possible problems that could result from corn and rice and other crops that have been grown from seeds that were genetically altered by the use of chemicals and technology. And so the answer is yes, a documentary should be ethical to be effective, and it should have enough power through the people being interviewed to change minds where they need to be changed.
Ebert, Roger. 2005. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan / Bob Dylan: Reluctant Icon. Retrieved April 20, 2008, at http://www.rogerebert.com.
Massachusetts School of Law. 2006. The Future of Food: What Every Person Should Know with Deborah Garcia. Retrieved April 20, 2008, at http://www.mslaw.edu.
Nichols, Bill. 2001. Introduction to Documentary.…