As California determines the fate of its terminally ill patients with the End of Life Option Act, a bill supporting the legality of assisted suicide, it’s important to look back and understand the history behind this issue in the United States. Documentary news organization Retro Report wants to provide you with that history by releasing a documentary about Jack Kavorkian, his homemade suicide machine, and the lasting impact it’s had on this country.
Distributed by The New York Times, Retro Report’s documentaries now total 53, covering “old” news stories from the crack baby epidemic to Three Mile Island. “Old” is in quotes because the idea is that these stories aren’t to be filed away in some dusty cabinet. They continue to impact news stories today in ways that many people miss in the current, fast-paced news environment.
Retro Report’s mission is to inject some “slow journalism” into this environment where readers/viewers often click from one story to the next as fast as they can process the main point (if not sooner). With so much information available online, especially in media as easily digestible as short-form video, there’s a pressure to know a lot instead of knowing a lot about an important issue. Retro Report’s documentaries provide an easily accessible way to do the latter.
“We either say we’re doing long-form videos for the internet or short-form documentaries — it depends on your perspective,” says Kyra Darnton, the managing editor of Retro Report. Each documentary runs for about 12 to 14 minutes, which is still enough time to tell these impactful stories. Plus, the Retro Report team is made up of experts in this area.
Most of its producers come from TV and magazine backgrounds, like “Frontline” and “60 Minutes.” As Darnton explains, “We’re used to distilling important, complicated topics in a short period of time.” With the organization’s editors’ experience in documentary filmmaking, they have the tools they need to create engaging and informative content that will appeal to people through the vast clutter of internet “news.”
“We’re a counterweight to the 24/7 news cycle,” Darnton sums up the cause. While you can cruise the internet all day and night for update after update on California’s End of Life Option act, you can also piece together a more informed opinion by watching Retro Report’s latest documentary on The New York Times website (or Retro Report’s own). “Kavorkian, [who was] from 25 years ago, got people thinking about the initiative,” Darnton explains. “The documentary ties it into how part of that debate has impacted today.” You can also watch it below:
The documentary doesn’t stay in the past. The latter two-thirds “are really about today,” says Darnton, “where we are as a country.” Other documentaries, like one focusing on the so-called crack baby epidemic, aim to educate viewers about interpreting media trends. The crack baby panic wasn’t exactly founded (it was largely based on one study involving 22 babies that didn’t account for variants like poverty and alcohol use), but the media took hold of it and framed it as a reason for mass alarm.
Ultimately, Retro Report wants viewers to think of their videos as part of a digital library. The project was meant for the internet from the beginning, and the organization will continue to update documentaries that cover news stories that have since developed. Again, that careful, “slow journalism” comes in. “You’ll see that the issues are not as much tied to a certain day but tied to themes or issues that are relevant, so we have time — it’s not like we’re rushing to get them out every week,” Darnton describes.
This runs contrast to much of the news we get to today, which is rushed to publishing in mere minutes, let alone weeks. So far, Retro Report’s method has gotten a very positive response from viewers. Lots of audience members come from The New York Times, of course, but plenty of them are still younger viewers, who tend to “appreciate [Retro Report] saying, ‘Hey, peel back the news a little bit,’” even though they weren’t (or especially because they weren’t) around for the events explored in the documentaries themselves. In a world of constant updates and countless news outlets, it’s heartening to know there’s a way to enable, in Darnton’s words, “people to think, ‘Let’s not just watch the next, new thing; let’s learn the lessons of history.’”