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Louis Theroux’s objectivity: is it journalism?

by on October 11, 2016

We’re taught that it’s impolite to talk about politics the first time we meet someone. 

Louis Theroux, on the other hand, goes ahead and asks those questions. Theroux is a British documentary filmmaker and broadcaster. He’s best known for his BBC series “Weird Weekends,” which examines American subcultures. He has interviewed Neo-Nazis and members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I pulled up a couple Theroux videos after our talks on objectivity (warning: much of the interviews contain homophobia, racism, sexism, etc.) Throughout these interviews, he remains cool, relaxed and, most of all, neutral. 

Take a look: 

Here, he interviews a top drug dealer of Philadelphia. He asks detail orientated questions, and more often than not, his subject voluntarily reveals the answer we were waiting for. One of his friends points to the silver chain a second time and says that it cost 100,000 dollars, after the drug dealer insists that he makes a humble living through real estate and selling cars. It might be the camera or Theroux’s neutrality and monotonous aura that make the group uneasy and giggly. Either way, Theroux’s questions pull out the truth.

Theroux may have started his career as a journalist, but I think it’s important to reflect why he isn’t one. If you go back to the drug dealer interview, Theroux is wearing a police vest. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it was explained earlier in the episode not included in this Youtube video. But either way, he’s posing to be somebody he is not.

I’m not sure if he explains his position to his subjects before or after the taping or which ethical guidelines documentary filmmakers subject themselves to, but it’s clear that Theroux isn’t intending to be a journalist even though he’s conducting an interview.

Which brings me to my series of questions: does Theroux teach us how to conduct proper interviews? Can we learn something from him? Why else isn’t(/is) Theroux a journalist?

In Jay Rosen’s analysis of objectivity, he stresses on transparency. As does Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The New Ethics of Journalism.” At times, Theroux does fess up and say that he disagrees with his subject – at least when he’s asked —  which you can see in the Neo-Nazi interview. But how would the interview be different if he outright came out with his biases?

Is it possible to interview someone you morally disagree with after expressing your biases like that?

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3 Comments
  1. One of Theroux’s larger pieces takes place in a facility for child predators, who have served their sentence but are not suitable for society. He is definitely seen as an outsider, as the patients and residents take note of his presence as unnatural and unfitting. Much like the bullet proof vest, it is through site where the transparency lies in my opinion. It is the most upfront to show that you are someone who feels unsafe and unwelcome (the vest), or are not a criminal in the same way as the predators. While it may harm trust levels, it is honest, which I think opens up many people like the WBC in answering questions no one else has got them to answer. I do think that Theroux is a journalist. The expression of bias often gives the subject grounds to answer questions beyond the surface, Theroux sees that and I think the subjects do as well.

    • Lucy permalink

      That’s very true about the vest, I didn’t even consider that point initially.

  2. I have never seen any of his work before, other than the video you posted, but from that video I would not necessarily consider him a journalist, however he is interviewing people who’s voices are not usually heard, and I think there can be value and something to learn in that. I also think that it is possible to interview someone you disagree with. People tend to value honesty, and will share their ideas if you share yours.

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