In this paper, I demonstrate how an understanding of narrative and the tools of narrative analysis can help criminologists unpack the techniques of meaning-making employed in media representations, including documentary films about imprisonment. Since media help to shape, though do not determine, public perceptions of crime and criminal justice, it is useful for criminologists to examine not just media content (i.e. what is said), but also how media constructions advance arguments that are presented as self-evidently true. Narrative structure offers one way for journalists to organize content in a persuasive and emotionally appealing manner and to embed arguments and interpretations within the story of what happened such that they appear to flow naturally and logically from the events themselves. Through a detailed examination of narrative structure, criminologists can better understand how the arguments and interpretations of mediated constructions are communicated and made to appear logical and persuasive. In what follows, Labov’s socio-linguistic narrative approach is adapted to illustrate the role that narrative structure can play in argumentation and, in this case, to facilitate analysis of two Canadian investigative documentaries about the widely publicized mistreatment and carceral death of a female prisoner, Ashley Smith.
Over the past few decades, scholars from various disciplines including criminology, sociology, legal studies, history, and psychology, have demonstrated increasing interest in how we narrate social events, experiences, and our lives more generally. In much of this literature, storytelling is understood as a meaning-making process that enables us to order and make sense of things that happen in the world around us (e.g. Bruner 2002; Polletta, Chen, Gardner, & Motes, 2011; Presser, 2016; White, 1980). Within criminology, scholars have explored, among other things, how prisoners use narrative work to counter stigma and construct themselves as respectable (Fleetwood, 2015; Ugelvik, 2015) and the ways that particular narratives might encourage or discourage harmful social action (Keeton, 2015; O’Connor, 2015; Presser, 2016). Contributing to the methodological toolbox of narrative criminology, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how a narrative approach may inform criminological analyses of media artifacts, such as documentary film. In recent decades, many issues surrounding crime and criminal justice have been represented in documentary films, including, but certainly not limited to, the intersection of race and mass incarceration in the United States (Barish, DuVernay, & Averick, 2016), the experiences of transgender prisoners (Baus, Hunt, & Williams, 2006), and the impacts of the war on drugs (Jarecki & Shopsin, 2012).
Recognizing the importance of how issues are framed and constructed, scholars have long examined how the media narrates social problems and how this might influence policy, public concern, and practices of exclusion (e.g. Cohen 1972; Jewkes 2015; Loseke 2003). For example, writing about media coverage of youth riots in Britain during the 1960s, Cohen (1972) identified how media representations contributed to feelings of anxiety about particular youth subcultures and led to demands for punitive action. Similarly, Jewkes (2015) argues that media reporting on deviant or criminalized acts can amplify perceptions of danger as journalists and media outlets compete to gain and retain audience attention. By offering emotionally engaging narratives and concrete representations of issues that may otherwise seem distant or abstract (Nichols 2017), documentary film and other documentary forms such as podcasts have the potential to inform audiences and mobilize public concern about a wide range of social problems. The documentaries examined in this paper, Out of Control (2010) and Behind the Wall (2010), represent an admirable effort to expose and raise concern about the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners and the lack of transparency in Canadian prisons.
There is some debate within criminology as to whether documentary film can contribute to prison reform efforts (Bennett, 2006; Jewkes, 2015). While documentary films have the potential to challenge common-sense assumptions about prisons and prisoners, allow viewers to engage emotionally with the pains of incarceration and perhaps elicit empathy, they can also be voyeuristic, individualizing, and may present the prison system as self-evident (Jewkes, 2015; Story, Brown, & Carrabine, 2017). Mediated representations can powerfully impact public understandings of prison and criminal justice (Dittmann & Gerber, 2016), which may, in turn, produce changes in law and policy. Audiences, however, are not passive and mobilize pre-existing tools of interpretation to make sense of what is presented to them (Doyle, 2006; Jewkes, 2015). Since direct experience with prison may be limited, and documentary films claim to represent reality, documentaries about prison may be particularly influential in shaping public perceptions of imprisonment, making it important to examine the narratives they construct. In this paper, I demonstrate how the conceptual tools of Labov’s socio-linguistic narrative analysis can be mobilized to examine documentary narratives about corrections and the criminal justice system. I argue that detailed examination of narrative structure can help us understand how media artifacts frame and impose meaning on events, as well as how particular narrative techniques might contribute to the persuasiveness and verisimilitude of media representations.
I adapted Labovian narrative analysis to examine two Canadian documentaries produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s hallmark investigative journalism program, The Fifth Estate. The documentaries, Out of Control (OC) (January 2010) and Behind the Wall (BW) (November 2010), tell the story of Ashley Smith. Smith was incarcerated at the age of 15 on a one-month custodial youth sentence which lapsed into a three-year period before her transfer to the Canadian adult federal correctional system following her 18th birthday. During her federal incarceration, Smith was held in segregation for over eleven months, subjected to physical and chemical restraints, and transferred 17 times. In 2007, at the age of 19, she died of self-asphyxiation from ligature use as correctional staff watched from the hall outside her cell, obeying orders from management not to intervene until after Smith passed out. The two Fifth Estate documentaries recount what happened to Smith, revealing that “Canadian prisons punish the mentally ill” (Gartner,1 BW) instead of providing mental health treatment. I chose to analyze these specific documentaries for several reasons. The Smith case received a large amount of public and media attention, with images and videotaped evidence of Smith’s carceral mistreatment eventually released to the public by court order. The Coroner’s Inquest into Smith’s death officially ruled it a homicide (Carlisle, 2013), making over 100 recommendations for the Correctional Service of Canada. A public report on Smith’s death by the Federal Correctional Investigator entitled A Preventable Death (Sapers, 2008) identified “widespread breakdowns” (para. 117) in procedures surrounding transfer, segregation, confinement conditions, health care, use of force, mental health services, and grievance processes. Furthermore, CBC’s The Fifth Estate has a large national audience and airs on prime time television in Canada. In a behind-the-scenes documentary episode entitled Secrets of the Fifth Estate (2015), several people involved in the production of Out of Control and Behind the Wall spoke about the positive impact of the Fifth Estate coverage of Smith’s death, suggesting that it exposed injustices and stimulated public discussion, which subsequently influenced the Coroner’s Inquest and its recommendations. Expanding on a previous paper that offered a feminist critique of the documentaries (Crépault & Kilty, 2017), this paper provides a methodological discussion of how narrative structure contributes to the overall argumentation in the documentaries and how we can endeavour to analyze it.
Narratives are not simply uncovered through analysis but are instead co-produced by the researcher and the narrator (or documentarians). For instance, my position as a critical feminist criminologist influenced the narrative that I saw in the two Fifth Estate documentaries. I approached the documentaries by juxtaposing them with feminist scholarship about women’s experiences of incarceration, which guided my observations about both the content of the documentaries and what they excluded. As Presser and Sandberg (2015) state, “the analyst’s disclosure of what she or he calls the narrative and why are crucial. That is to say, one should tell the story of the research” (p. 14). In this paper, I provide the “story of the research,” disclosing the conceptualization of narrative that guided the analysis, some of the uncertainties I experienced during analysis, the steps taken to trace narrative structure, and what this enabled me to see in the documentaries. In other words, I show how I engaged with the documentary narratives and the insights that this process revealed.
I begin the paper by conceptualizing narrative and exploring how narratives can persuade, influence their social context, and reproduce normative expectations. Next, I consider narrative in the context of documentary film, arguing that narrative structure may contribute to a documentary’s ability to resonate with its audience and present itself as truthful. Following this, I introduce Labov’s socio-linguistic work on narrative and explain how I adapted his work to facilitate documentary film analysis. In the last three sections of the paper, I discuss the results of a narrative examination of the two Fifth Estate documentaries to illustrate how narrative structure can contribute to a documentary’s organization, argumentation, and persuasiveness.
Within the vast literature on narrative, scholars have defined the seemingly simple concepts of narrative and story in many different ways.2 As White (1980) points out, narratives are “familiar but conceptually elusive” (p. 17); we know a story when we hear one, but have great difficulty defining it without reference to prototypical examples. For the purposes of this paper, I understand narrative as a form of communication that recounts events or experiences in a way that connects them meaningfully, often (though not always) by placing them in temporal order, so as to provide the account with a point or purpose for being told (Presser, 2016; Presser & Sandberg, 2015; Riessman, 2008; Salmon & Riessman, 2013). According to Presser (2009), narrative criminology attends not only to the contents of narratives but to the ways that narratives operate “as a factor in the motivation for and accomplishment of crime and criminalization” (p. 178). In other words, narrative criminologists begin with a recognition that the way we tell narratives influences harmful behaviour and how we define and respond to it.
Although narratives can speak of past events, they can never fully represent them. In fact, the question of whether a story is a true depiction may be less important than examining what it can tell us about the social context in which it is told and the value-system upon which it draws (Sandberg, 2010). Narrative construction involves not only selecting, organizing, and excluding various events and details, but also imbuing events with meaning that indicates why they matter and why they were recounted (Barthes, 1975; Gubrium & Holstein, 1998; Riessman & Quinney, 2005; White, 1980). Narratives are shaped, though not determined, by the contexts in which they are told. For example, narrators draw on various cultural discourses to create a coherent narrative (Presser & Sandberg, 2015) and adjust their narratives in response to the expressed or perceived expectations of an audience (Salmon & Riessman, 2013). Narratives are not just influenced by the social world; they also help to constitute and shape the social world and human action.
Narrative criminologists emphasize this point by exploring how particular narratives motivate, justify, curb, situate, or otherwise impact harmful social action (Keeton, 2015; O’Connor 2015; Presser, 2016; Presser & Sandberg, 2015). Narratives can also contribute to the reproduction of cultural stereotypes and dominant meanings (Ewick & Silbey, 1995; Polletta, 2006; Polletta et al., 2011; van Dijk, 1993). Alternatively, some narratives may challenge dominant ways of thinking and expose systemic inequalities (Polletta, 2006; Smith, 2010). In this way, narratives both influence and are influenced by their socio-cultural contexts (Presser, 2016).
Narratives can also contribute to practices of persuasion; as they select, organize, and attribute meaning to a series of events, narrators advance claims about the world. Since these claims are embedded within accounts of what happened, they are often communicated implicitly and are therefore less vulnerable to contestation or critique (Ewick & Silbey, 1995). Narratives can also persuade by appealing to and evoking an audience’s emotions. By offering glimpses into someone’s experiences, thoughts, and point of view, storytelling encourages audiences to empathize with individuals (Robbins, 2006). Moreover, narrators may build upon culturally familiar tropes and plotlines to construct a narrative that a particular audience will recognize and understand (Chestek, 2012; Foley & Robbins, 2001; Robbins, 2006).
A narrative’s “reportability”, which depends on the relationship between narrative content and the context of its telling, contributes to how it is received and whether it is even told in the first place (Labov, 2013; Shuman, 2011). Narrative reportability intimates whether a series of events are unusual, meaningful, or interesting enough to justify occupying a particular audience’s attention; if a narrative is insufficiently reportable, it may be interrupted or “evoke the crushing response, ‘So what?’” (Labov, 2013, p. 21). A narrative’s reportability is connected to the perceived probability of its events; reportable narratives often involve at least one event that departs from cultural expectations about what is normal in a given situation (Amsterdam & Bruner, 2002; Bruner, 2002; Labov, 2013). For example, a trip to the bank that occurs precisely how one would expect is unlikely to constitute a reportable story. Unexpectedness, therefore, contributes to whether a narrative is seen as reportable and “newsworthy” (Jewkes, 2015, p. 45).
By devising reportability from the unexpectedness of certain events, narratives mobilize and reinforce normative expectations (Amsterdam & Bruner, 2002). For example, at the beginning of the first Fifth Estate documentary (Out of Control), Gartner tells us that Smith’s story “begins not as you might predict, but in a nice neat home with parents who really care”. These words are accompanied by camera shots of a suburban home and immediately followed by an interview in Smith’s old bedroom with Coralee Smith, her adoptive mother. During the interview, Coralee shows a collection of her daughter’s dolls and Gartner tells us how Smith had been a “sweet, playful girl” and states that “looking around this room there is not one clue to how everything went so terribly wrong”. Embedded in this depiction of the story’s unexpected beginning is an implication about how one might expect a story about an incarcerated young woman to begin: in an un-neat home, with parents who do not care and a child that was not sweet or playful. In this way, a narrative’s unexpectedness always carries normative implications about what is expected and which, by its normality, may have rendered the narrative less reportable. Mobilizing gendered expectations of feminine passivity, the documentary juxtaposes Smith’s “girly” (Coralee Smith) behavior as a child against her “out of control” behavior as a teenager, making the narrative more shocking and newsworthy.
Given that every representation is “an artificial construct, a highly contrived and selective view of the world, produced for some purpose” (Eitzen, 1995, p. 82), determining what constitutes a documentary can be unclear. Seemingly straightforward distinctions that situate documentaries as representations of reality start to blur when we recognize that both factual and fictional works refer to and “reflect upon reality in some way” (Frauley, 2016, p. 444) without being able to directly mirror or fully capture it. Eitzen (1995) provides a flexible conceptualization of documentary that does not require asserting whether or not a film “tells the truth” (p. 89). He suggests that we can reasonably ask whether a documentary is lying, whereas asking this question of a fictional film would not make sense. In this conceptualization, identifying documentary films does not require posing an answer to the question “is it lying?”, but depends on whether it makes sense to ask the question at all. As Eitzen (1985) points out, thinking of documentary in this way “does not produce a nice, neat, sharply defined set of texts but a fuzzy-edged, somewhat flexible one” (p. 89). Adopting Eitzen’s flexible conceptualization of documentary allows us to think about how a particular film presents itself as a documentary, that is, the discursive strategies that it invokes to make the “is it lying” question relevant and to signify its own veracity. The narrator’s first words in Behind the Wall—“Tonight—the shocking truth about what goes on behind the walls of our federal prisons”—exemplify how documentarians signify the relevance of the “is it lying” question and, by extension, the film’s status as a documentary.
Documentaries require an internal organizing logic that can, but does not always, take the form of a story (Nichols, 2017). By organizing a documentary as a narrative, documentarians advance claims about what happened while simultaneously imbuing their account with internal coherence and a verisimilitude achieved by presenting the story as found or uncovered. Although creating a coherent narrative requires leaving out certain events, details, and alternate interpretations, the coherence achieved may paradoxically obscure these exclusions by creating an appearance of fullness (Crépault & Kilty, 2017; White, 1980). As Chanan (2008) argues, “the documentary is always built on structuring absences, which are normally suppressed in the process of editing, that is, of achieving narrative or discursive or poetic coherence” (p. 124). Even as information is edited out of a documentary, narrative structure contributes to its appearance as a full and veracious telling of real events as they happened.
Narrative structure may also enable a documentary’s underlying assertions to resonate more strongly with viewers. As aforementioned, narratives can demonstrate implicit arguments, evoke empathy, and mobilize culturally familiar plots in are highly persuasive ways. Organizing a documentary in narrative form can also provide aesthetic appeal (Corner, 2008) and help documentary films resonate with the pre-existing narrative frameworks of their audiences (Bondebjerg, 2014). Moreover, narrative strategies, such as dramatic plot twists, can result in powerful affective responses that may resonate with documentary audiences long after viewing and perhaps even motivate political action (Horeck, 2014, p. 155-6).
In arguing that narrative structure may contribute to a documentary’s persuasiveness and resonance, I make no claims or assumptions about how audiences will view or be impacted by narrative content. Audiences are not merely passive receivers of mediated representations (Doyle, 2006) and we must be careful not to “over-read the monolithic effect of mass media on our views, affects, and actions concerned with crime and justice” (Ericson, 1991, p. 221). To interpret and make sense of mediated representations, audiences mobilize various cultural resources, assumptions, ideologies, scripts, and personal experiences that may result in very different viewings (Doyle, 2006; Jewkes, 2015). Furthermore, my examination of the documentaries is itself an interpretation—one informed by, among other things, the tools of narrative analysis and the insights of feminist criminologies (Crépault & Kilty, 2017). In this paper, I focus on how narrative forms of organization may operate as discursive techniques for constructing persuasive, verisimilar documentary accounts. In the next section, I introduce the narrative approach that guided my examination of documentary narrative structure.
Sociolinguist William Labov (1972, 2013) argues that narratives contain at least two independent clauses that are temporally and meaningfully ordered.3 According to Labov (2013, p. 29), the “skeleton” of a narrative is supplied by the complicating action, which recounts andorders a chain of events surrounding the narrative’s “most reportable event”—that is, an event that constitutes a change in circumstances or breach of expectations. While complicating actions comprise a narrative’s core, many narratives contain some or all of the following elements: abstract, which pre-emptively indicates what the narrative is about; orientation, which describes the setting; evaluation, which provides commentary and attributes meaning to aspects of the narrative; resolution, which indicates the outcome of the action; and coda, which ends the narrative by bringing the focus back to the present (Labov, 1972, 2013). Although abstracts tend to occur at the beginning and codas at the end, these elements can be dispersed throughout a narrative and narratives do not need to include every element. In this sense, a speaker has “many options for constructing the narrative” (Labov, 2013, p. 27) and Labov’s framework provides a versatile set of concepts that can be used to examine narratives that vary greatly in length, content, organization, and complexity.
In Labovian analysis, a researcher typically identifies narrative segments in transcribed data and then determines the narrative function of each clause (Langellier, 1989; Patterson, 2013; Riessman, 2008). Rather than breaking narratives into various themes based on what was said (i.e., content), this approach involves analyzing how speakers organize and construct their narratives. Identifying the purpose of each clause in a narrative enables researchers to consider and compare how narrators communicate their perspectives and draw meaningful connections between various events, situations, and experiences (Patterson, 2013; Riessman, 2008). That said, rigid applications of a Labovian approach may cause researchers to overlook narratives that do not manifest elements of Labov’s model or meet the minimum criterion of temporal ordering (Langellier, 1989; Patterson, 2013). It is thus useful to treat Labov’s narrative elements as comprising a flexible conceptual tool rather than a rigid model or set of standards. Arguing that “there is much to be gained by the judicious use of a Labovian approach” (p. 38), Patterson (2013) suggests that researchers adopt more inclusive criteria for identifying narratives and use Labov’s concepts more freely throughout their analysis. When used creatively and flexibly, Labov’s concepts can be used to examine a variety of storytelling forms, such as Twitter posts (Dayter, 2015) and film trailers (Maier, 2009). In the following section, I outline how I adapted Labov’s approach to analyze the narrative construction of the two Fifth Estate documentaries.
To facilitate a detailed examination, I began by transcribing the documentaries. As Riessman (2008) argues, even transcription of a recorded interview involves interpretive decisions and should be considered part of the analysis process. The key difficulty I encountered when transcribing the documentaries was the diversity of the documentaries’ overlapping components. Each documentary brought together two different types of dialogue: the main dialogue recorded for the documentary itself (e.g., narration, interviews) and the dialogue from the surveillance video footage of Smith. I also felt it was important to include the music, various background sounds, and visual content in my transcription. Furthermore, I wanted to capture how these dimensions overlapped with one another. For these reasons, I decided to transcribe the documentaries into a table containing the following five columns: time, main dialogue, surveillance video footage, added background sounds, and visual content. Although describing aural and visual content in words is limited, this approach allowed me to consider how the documentaries alternated between and layered the different components. For example, if a narrator monologue overlapped with the sound and visual shot of a cell door closing, these components could be presented as occurring simultaneously (i.e., in different columns but occurring beside each other). To indicate where I perceived scene breaks, I started a new row for each scene and recorded its start and end times in the “time” column. The resultant transcripts facilitated consideration of how each scene contributed to the documentary narrative.
The analysis of narrative structure consisted primarily of two interrelated steps: analysis of individual scenes and examination of how the scenes operated in relation to each other and came together to form a “through narrative” about the Smith case. The term “through narrative” refers to how particular points or issues are emphasized and used to draw the individual scenes together into a coherent story (Crépault & Kilty, 2017). I began the analysis looking for an “overarching narrative,” but this term was inaccurate because no singular narrative was used to glide over and interpret every detail presented in the documentary content. Instead, the narrative trajectory in each documentary seemed to punch through the various scenes, selecting certain points as significant and worthy of further exploration and using those points to bring the scenes into connection with each other. In the next three sections, I examine the through narrative in more detail and explain how it was constructed in each documentary.
During the first step of the analysis, I looked at each scene one at a time and took detailed notes on things such as key arguments, setting, shifts in dialogue, connections between dialogue and visual content, how different speakers framed certain events, and language (e.g., “legal/illegal”; “security and risk”; “helpless”). While working on this analytic stage, I had doubts about whether it would yield anything useful because I often felt I was merely describing the documentary content, rather than analyzing its organization or larger meanings. I wrote the following in my research journal at the time:
Sometimes it seems as though my analysis consists of describing what is going on in the documentary with some commentary on how it connects to the other pieces. It feels as though I may be being too descriptive in my notes, but at the same time this is just one level of analysis; when I look at the documentary as a whole, this will hopefully allow me to see the broader connections beyond description.
Despite my concerns, the detailed description of each scene ended up being a key part of the analysis because it helped me become very familiar with the documentary content before examining narrative structure. Furthermore, this close examination allowed me to draw out the key point(s) of each scene and consider how they were presented and framed.
In the second analytic stage, I used Labov’s approach to examine how the scenes were compiled to structure each documentary. In particular, I used Labov’s concepts to identify whether each scene functioned as abstract, orientation, complicating action, result, evaluation, or coda. While identifying the scenes’ narrative functions was an interpretive process that was not always clear-cut, this approach provided insight on how the documentarians placed the scenes in relation to one another in a way that advanced particular interpretations, arguments, and meanings. Generally, a key strength of narrative analysis is that it does not involve breaking narratives into thematic categories but instead considers narrative as a whole, examining each statement in the context of the larger story (Riessman, 2008; Schinkel, 2014). By considering each scene’s content as well as its narrative function and position within the documentary, I examined how various narrations, interviews, and surveillance video clips were woven together to create a through narrative about what happened and what it means. This was a messy and uncertain process, as evidenced by the following excerpt from my research journal, written as I analyzed the first documentary: “The documentary contains a lot of nuance and detail and trying to trace the narrative that seems to pull it all together leaves me stuck most of the time.” Carefully considering how each scene led into the next and mobilizing Labov’s concepts helped me move past the feeling of being “stuck” and make sense of the documentary.
Since narratives are conditioned, though not determined, by social, political, and cultural context, contextualizing the documentary narratives by considering the wider cultural discourses they mobilize was also an important part of the analysis. Elsewhere, Kilty and I (2017) consider the political and cultural context within which the documentaries were made and offer a feminist critique of how the documentaries mobilized individualizing and pathologizing discourses that present criminalized women as psychologically maladjusted and obscure wider socio-structural barriers and oppressions that contribute to women’s criminalization. We argued that despite the documentaries’ express critique of CSC practices, the documentary narratives failed to question what constitutes mental health treatment in corrections or to consider feminist concerns about the coercive nature of correctional therapeutic practices (e.g., Kilty, 2012; Pollack, 2006). Using narrative analysis allowed for consideration of how various scenes involving multiple people making different arguments were drawn together through a narrative that privileged correctional discourses about the individualized mental health needs of criminalized women. Analyzing content alone may have led to a focus on what was present, rather than what was excluded, and drawn attention away from how certain information is briefly mentioned but rendered relatively unimportant within the trajectory of the documentary narrative. In the remainder of this paper, I focus primarily on narrative structure and consider not only what discourses and themes are present, but how the narrative organization of each documentary helps advance and support its arguments.
One important difference between personal oral narrative and documentary narrative is that the latter must be created by editing together video clips, interviews, and accounts provided by multiple people. For this reason, I suggest that documentaries often contain statements, alternate interpretations, or details that may not form part of the documentary through narrative. While some content is excluded during the editing process, documentarians, to varying degrees, draw upon the accounts of others to construct their narrative, which requires framing comments, images, and video clips such that they contribute to the documentary’s story (Nichols, 2017). When analyzing the narrative structure of the two Fifth Estate documentaries, I considered the particular points, statements, or arguments that were used to draw connections between scenes. For example, in Behind the Wall (BW) a former social worker for corrections states that “physical and […] more perhaps emotional, psychological abuses” are occurring in prisons that correctional workers are afraid to report. This point connects with and frames the next interview clip, which shows two guard union representatives exemplifying a degree of institutional cover-up in their dismissal of certain incidents as lies, stating that if “you’re seeing that kind of abuse, you put it in writing” (BW). By examining how scenes were connected, the narrative function of each scene, and the content left behind as unimportant or irrelevant to the documentary trajectory, I mapped the through narrative of each documentary.
The through narrative can be understood as a figurative thread and needle that draws the scenes into meaningful relation to one another by emphasizing one aspect or detail among many. As certain points are used to connect scenes, other comments, issues, interpretations, and details that could have been drawn out as part of the through narrative are left unexplored and rendered trivial in the context of the documentary. For instance, the Fifth Estate documentaries include brief comments revealing that Smith was initially incarcerated somewhere that was a “two-hour drive from home” (Gartner, Out of Control [OC]), immediately strip-searched upon her arrival at the New Brunswick Youth Centre and held in adult federal women’s prisons throughout much of her incarceration. But, these issues are not used as connecting points between scenes or drawn out as significant in the through narrative. This marginalization of particular issues aligns with White’s argument that narratives are always “constructed on the basis of a set of events that might have been included but were left out” (1980, p. 10, original emphasis).
Although they are not ascribed with causal significance within the through narrative’s trajectory, unexplored comments do serve a purpose in the documentaries. As Barthes (1975) argues in his discussion of narrative structure, “everything, in one way or another, is significant” (p. 244). The details that surround the through narrative without being included as part of its causal chain of events can be thought of as what Barthes (1975) refers to as “informants”—those pieces of information that locate a narrative in time and space so as to authenticate its reality. While they do not impact the narrative’s trajectory or conclusions, these details (e.g., that Smith was adopted when she was five days old) act as “realistic operator[s]” (Barthes 1975, p. 249) that contribute to the narrative’s verisimilitude and appearance of fullness. Although the documentarians control what is or is not included, as well as how content is framed and narrated, they must work with the words provided by interviewees, much of which may be extraneous to the narrative they are trying to create. By drawing out certain pieces of information as relevant to the trajectory of the through narrative, the documentarians reduce other content to the status of informant—namely, those details that add to the narrative’s fullness, and thus its verisimilitude, without being presented as causally significant.
In both Fifth Estate documentaries, the through narrative begins with an abstract and several orientation scenes, which frame the rest of the narrative by telling viewers what to expect: in the first documentary, the story of “a troubled young girl who cried out for help and never got it” (Gartner, OC) and, in the second documentary, the story of “how Canadian prisons punish the mentally ill” (Gartner, BW). After these introductory scenes, the through narratives of both documentaries are organized by the following pattern that is repeated throughout: description of complicating action(s) to several evaluations that comment on that action and are usually provided through narration or interview clip to description of the next complicating action(s) to several evaluations. There are, however, differences in how the documentaries mobilize this action/evaluation pattern, as I discuss in the next two sections.
The through narratives of the documentaries advance the following arguments about the Smith case: “they [correctional staff] took her life” (Coralee Smith, OC); “there’s young people in jail for minor infractions, for mental conditions not being treated” (Coralee Smith, OC); “instead of treating her, they punished Ashley’s behaviour” (Gartner, BW); prisoners are “being punished for being mentally ill” (Gartner, BW); and Correctional Service Canada (CSC) has “done everything physically possible to hide the truth” (the Smith family’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, BW). It can be difficult to garner public support for progressive correctional policy changes that benefit prisoners and media coverage can significantly contribute to public discussions and framings of certain issues (Birkett, 2014; Dittmann & Gerber, 2016). Through their investigative work and coverage of the Smith case, The Fifth Estate problematizes Canadian prisons, bringing attention to CSC’s mistreatment of prisoners, the overuse of segregation, the failure to provide adequate mental health care, and the lack of transparency in correctional policy and practice. That said, the documentary through narratives emphasize the issue of mental illness, problematically upholding the notion that unruly women prisoners are mad and in need of treatment that will fix them (Birkett, 2014; McCorkel, 2003; Pollack and Kendall, 2005; Crépault & Kilty, 2017). In the following two sections, I discuss how the narrative structure of each documentary helps advance particular arguments and interpretations, presenting them as self-evident, that is, found or uncovered through investigation.
The first documentary, Out of Control (OC) advances its arguments primarily by presenting and resolving conflicting evaluations. In Labov’s narrative framework, evaluations attribute meaning to various events and provide commentary on what happened and why it matters (Labov, 2013; Patterson, 2013; Riessman, 2008). The evaluations in both documentaries are frequently provided by interview clips with key witnesses and experts. As Schokkenbroek (1999) argues, mobilizing evaluations attributable to a third person may be a common feature of journalistic narratives because it provides them with greater legitimacy and allows journalists to express their own views more covertly. In OC, the evaluations that follow each complicating action are typically set up in conflict with one another; however, they are not left in a state of contradiction but are framed and positioned such that one evaluation appears significantly more legitimate than the other. Conflicting evaluations are thus reconciled before the next complicating action is described. As the documentary progresses, supported evaluations become part of the through narrative and frame subsequent actions. In Figure 1, I map out the through narrative in OC, showing complicating actions at the top of each table and accompanying evaluations in italics. A zigzag border indicates conflicting evaluations and bold font indicates which evaluation was supported within the documentary.
Throughout the documentary, different techniques are used to reconcile conflicting evaluations, such as presenting one as a biased opinion intended to deflect responsibility, using video footage to support a claim or framing conflicts within the context of previously supported evaluations. To explain how the through narrative is constructed in OC and how it advances its arguments by presenting and resolving conflicting evaluations, the next few pages of this article describe a section of the documentary in detail (the first two tables in Figure 1). This section comprises approximately ten minutes of the film and focuses on the events leading up to Smith’s incarceration and her initial time spent at the New Brunswick Youth Centre (NBYC).
After describing the “nice neat home” (Gartner) in which Smith was raised, the narrative turns to “when the trouble started” (Gartner): an interview clip with Smith’s adoptive father indicates that around 13 or 14 years of age Smith started to get in trouble at school, at home, and with the law. Smith is described as having become “defiant, disrespectful, and disruptive” (Gartner) and “on the verge of being outta control” (Coralee Smith), and Gartner narrates how it seemed that “the only thing Ashley was good at was being bad.” We are then told that Smith’s concerned parents sought psychological help for her, although this did not result in a diagnosis or treatment plan. From there, Coralee describes Smith’s index offense of throwing crab apples at a postal worker, for which she was sentenced to thirty days in the NBYC. The documentary then provides evaluations of the NBYC, which “describes itself as a safe and secure environment for youth aged 12 to 17” (Gartner). In an interview, Bernard Richard, who served as the New Brunswick Ombudsman and investigated Smith’s treatment at the NBYC, states that the institution’s purpose is to be “therapeutic.” Following this pronouncement, an interview with Jessica Fair, who was “in the cell next to Ashley’s” (Gartner), reveals that Smith was strip-searched, held in isolation, and restrained. This account is corroborated by video footage of Smith being restrained by guards. The “therapeutic quiet” of the NBYC is thus revealed to be the same as segregation (solitary confinement), and Richard describes the use of the term “therapeutic” as the “softening of a very hard reality.”
The chain of complicating actions for this segment of the documentary can be summarized as follows: Smith getting into trouble à psychologists failing to help à Smith throws crab-apples at the postal worker à Smith sent to the NBYC (the first table in Figure 1). Two sets of conflicting evaluations are dispersed throughout the documentary’s description of these actions. First, the interpretation of Smith as inherently bad and “out of control” conflicts with the representation of Smith as in need of psychological help. Second, the description of the NBYC as a “safe and secure environment” (Gartner) with a therapeutic focus conflicts with the evaluation of it being “a very hard reality” (Richard) involving strip-searches and isolation. In each set of conflicting evaluations, one is presented as more legitimate, thereby resolving the contradiction and advancing a particular argument about what happened. In the first set of conflicting evaluations, the evaluation that Smith needed psychological help coheres with the narrative summary provided at the beginning of the documentary, namely, that this is the story of “a young girl who cried out for help and never got it” (Gartner). Since all of the narrative action is contextualized within this initial framework, the argument that Smith needed psychological help is positioned as having greater validity than the assessment of her as inherently bad. In the second set of conflicting evaluations, the representation of the NBYC as a “safe and secure environment” is revealed by Richard to be “doublespeak.” In this way, the representation of the NBYC as “therapeutic” is dismissed as a façade and the evaluation of its practices as harsh and inhumane is presented as a more accurate and legitimate depiction. This technique of presenting one evaluation as a façade is used frequently throughout the documentary to reconcile conflicting evaluations.
Ultimately, Smith is represented as in need of psychological help, and her experience in the NBYC is narrated as inhumane, undermining the conflicting claims that Smith was inherently bad and the NBYC was safe. The resolution of these two sets of conflicting narratives frames the next complicating action, which describes Smith acting out and self-harming while incarcerated and guards responding with increasingly punitive restraints (the second table in Figure 1). Accompanying this complicating action are two conflicting evaluations: 1) Smith was difficult to control, which resulted in her mistreatment; and 2) Smith’s behaviour was the result of being held in segregation and treated unfairly. The first evaluation is presented in Gartner’s narration of a video surveillance clip that shows guards attempting to get Smith to kneel on her bunk. In narrating this clip, Gartner refers to the 800 documented incidents Smith accumulated, stating that “even in solitary guards had trouble controlling Ashley” (Gartner). The first evaluation, therefore, presents the punitive restraints as an outcome of Smith's uncontrollability. The second evaluation, however, focuses on Smith's behaviour as a response to the conditions of her incarceration. According to Jessica Fair, Smith was unaware of what to expect from the guards, kept in restraints longer than she was supposed to be, and held in segregation for reasons that “didn't make sense to her.” The second evaluation thus contextualizes Smith’s seemingly uncontrollable behaviour within the immorality and unfairness of her carceral treatment.
The placement of these conflicting evaluations contributes to how they are reconciled within the documentary through narrative. In particular, they are provided after the evaluations about the NBYC, in which Smith’s treatment is presented as punitive and harsh, rather than therapeutic. Smith’s behaviour is therefore contextualized within the previous discussion of her mistreatment, lending support to the second evaluation that presents her “acting out” as a response to the conditions of her incarceration rather than as a result of inherent uncontrollability or dangerousness. Furthermore, the second evaluation is immediately followed by footage of Smith being restrained and “forced to lie in her own urine” (Gartner) after she is said to have acted out, which emphasizes her treatment as having lacked fairness, clarity, or respect. Taken together, the presentation and positioning of the conflicting evaluations lend greater validity to the second evaluation that situates Smith's behaviour as resulting from being held in segregation and treated unfairly.
The through narrative in OC is created by this process of presenting and then resolving conflicting evaluations. The section of the documentary discussed thus far constructs a through narrative that draws out the following points: Smith needed psychological help, was treated harshly instead of receiving mental health care and assessment, acted out in response to unfair treatment, and was then further restrained and treated more punitively. The resolution of contradictions in the documentary steadily guides the discussion towards particular interpretations and arguments about what happened. The evaluations that are given greater legitimacy frame subsequent contradictions and become the themes that comprise the through narrative and connect the various scenes of the documentary.
For every action or evaluation that is emphasized, other points could have been used to create a different through narrative. For instance, providing more support to evaluations that present Smith as bad and the NBYC as “safe and secure” would have created a through narrative about a girl who was given treatment that did not help her, rather than one about “a young girl who cried out for help and never got it” (Gartner). Presenting a different evaluation as more legitimate would change the trajectory and themes of the through narrative. Moreover, the through narrative would be different if greater emphasis were placed on briefly mentioned details of the story. For example, the discussion of Smith acting out could have highlighted the distress of being strip-searched, and the discussion of her mistreatment could have been contextualized within feminist criminological critiques that problematize gendered correctional expectations (Crépault & Kilty, 2017; Pollack & Kendall, 2005). Details about Smith’s gender and her experiences of being strip searched are included as orienting information in the story but are not presented as significant in terms of the events of the narrative.
By presenting conflicting evaluations and framing one as more legitimate than the other, The Fifth Estate advances a particular narrative about the case while simultaneously providing both sides of the story. This approach indicates to viewers that the documentarians consulted multiple sources with competing interpretations in order to provide a balanced account. Providing conflicting viewpoints is a common means of structuring political commentary to appear balanced.4 The documentary dichotomizes complex issues in a way that provides supported evaluations with the appearance of being self-evident. In OC, presenting and resolving conflicting evaluations thus operates as a powerful technique for creating a credible and seemingly self-evident through narrative about the Smith case. As aforementioned, the through narrative in OC concludes that “Ashley didn’t take her life, they [CSC] did” (Coralee Smith) by failing to provide mental health care and treating her inhumanely. In the next section, I show how the second documentary builds on these conclusions, but advances its through narrative and arguments in a different manner.
While the pattern of complicating action followed by evaluations also appears in Behind the Wall (BW), this documentary is not organized around conflicting evaluations. Instead, it advances its arguments and signifies their veracity primarily through corroborative evaluations and by creating a surrounding narrative that recounts aspects of The Fifth Estate’s investigative efforts. I initially found BW more difficult to analyse because instead of providing a story about one case, it used the Smith case to launch into a broader discussion about the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners in Canada and CSC’s lack of transparency. Intermingled with BW’s narrative about Smith are descriptions of other prisoners’ experiences and scenes showing the difficulties that The Fifth Estate experienced during their investigation. The documentary’s movement between narrating what happened to Smith and providing lengthy explanations of the search for answers was initially confusing and caused me to doubt whether BW was narratively organized at all. However, as I continued mapping out the actions, I began to regard BW as organized around two interrelated narratives that corroborate and support one another. The main narrative primarily recounts what happened and continues to happen “behind the wall,” namely the mistreatment of prisoners like Smith and the institutional cover-up of abuses against mentally ill prisoners. The surrounding narrative tells the story of The Fifth Estate’s investigative efforts, focusing on how CSC and the correctional code of silence made the search for answers difficult. The surrounding narrative’s chief purpose is to validate and illustrate aspects of the main narrative. In Figure 2, I map out the narratives in BW, showing the complicating actions at the top of each table, indicating whether they are part of the main or surrounding narrative, and providing accompanying evaluations underneath in italics. Underlined comments beneath the evaluations provide further discussion about how the evaluations and narratives corroborate one another.
As shown in Figure 2, the complicating actions of the main narrative include events such as Smith’s mistreatment, the comparative example of fellow prisoner Justine Winder being similarly restrained, and abusive practices being hidden by an unwritten code of silence. The surrounding narrative consists of events such as the documentarians being prevented from accessing an institution where Smith had been held and Gartner receiving a phone call from CSC indicating that only CSC-approved spokespersons are available for interviews. Most of the complicating actions in the supporting narrative are shown as they happen (e.g., footage of Gartner trying to access the psychiatric center and being denied entry), which demonstrates to the viewer how difficult it was to uncover the main narrative. To explain how the through narrative is constructed in BW, the remainder of this section describes several consecutive scenes in detail (the first three tables in Figure 2). These scenes comprised approximately thirteen minutes of the film and focus on Smith’s treatment while at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC)—“the place she was sent where she was supposed to get help” (Coralee Smith).
After providing a short abstract that shows viewers what to expect, BW begins by summarizing what happened to Smith (i.e., she was incarcerated at fifteen and died four years later in a segregation cell while in federal custody) and showing a video clip of Coralee Smith asking: “who put Ashley on the floor choking to death? […] what led to her being there with no help?” We are then told that “the answers have been locked away as securely as the inmates inside” (Gartner), which underscores the importance of the investigative work to be revealed throughout the documentary. Next, two closely intertwined complicating actions are described, one from the main narrative and one from the surrounding narrative. In the main narrative, Smith is transferred to the RPC in Saskatoon, and in the surrounding narrative, The Fifth Estate goes to the same center “looking for clues” (Gartner). The action of the surrounding narrative is depicted through shots of Gartner driving and interviewees having their microphones set up or walking into a building. The documentary “through narrative” evaluates this action by highlighting witnesses’ fear in speaking to The Fifth Estate and showing the following statement by Bonnie Bracken, a former nurse at the RPC who interacted with Smith on many occasions: “I will regret it if I don’t come forward and speak to what I believe in”. Fear of speaking out and a sense of moral obligation to do so are key themes in BW's surrounding narrative, and they corroborate the arguments in the main narrative about abusive practices being hidden.
The action and evaluations of the surrounding narrative are interspersed within and used to contextualize the main narrative, in which Smith is sent to the RPC where “she was supposed to get help” (Coralee Smith) and “came with a reputation for being the most difficult female inmate” in Canada (Gartner). An evaluation provided by an interview clip with Bracken shows that, even though Smith was “oppositional” at first, she was always “fine” with Bracken after an initial violent incident when Bracken chose to bring in supper instead of charging her for assault. According to Bracken, “Ashley could’ve been helped.” Following Bracken's evaluation, an interview with Kevin Grabowski and Pierre Mallet, two guard union representatives, indicates that “guards had a very different response to Ashley […] to control and contain her” (Gartner narrating). In this interview, Grabowski and Mallet are presented as viewing prisoners as inmates rather than patients and valuing institutional rules over therapy. The evaluation that Smith “could’ve been helped” (Bracken) combines with Gartner’s point that the guards emphasized control and containment, positioning the lack of therapeutic care at the psychiatric center as an outcome of the focus on institutional rules and security.
In the second complicating action of the main narrative, Smith is described as frequently breaking institutional rules, “everything from spitting to cutting and choking” (Gartner), and Bracken reports that the guards became “very aggravated” and at one point stood outside her door when she was choking herself, “kicking her door and saying ‘are you dead yet’”. Providing the first evaluation of this action, Linda Atkinson, a social worker who previously worked for CSC, states that this is one of “many cases of physical and more perhaps emotional, psychological abuses.” When Gartner asks Grabowski and Mallet about the incident, however, they dismiss it as a lie. While their dismissal of the incident would appear to be a conflicting evaluation, it is positioned in a way that corroborates Bracken and Atkinson's claim that a “code of silence” causes such abuses to go unreported. In particular, it comes right after we are told that there have been many witnessed cases of abuse and right before the discussion of how a code of silence makes staff “afraid to speak up against security” (Bracken). This juxtaposition presents Grabowski and Mallet’s evaluation as an example of the code of silence at work rather than as a potentially legitimate conflicting evaluation. Moreover, the surrounding narrative corroborates the claim that abusive practices remain hidden by showing the fear experienced by interviewees, such as Bracken and Atkinson, who spoke up about these abuses.
The third complicating action of the main narrative describes Smith being held in isolation, using ligatures to choke herself, and guards being ordered not to intervene. Bracken’s evaluation of Smith’s treatment points to how no psychological care was provided despite the institution's status as a “psychiatric care centre.” Following this, Grabowski is shown claiming that the reason for not responding is that “it could be a set-up.” In the interview clip, he states that preserving life will “never be at [the guard’s] expense.” Gartner's narration of how “Ashley was caught in the divide between security and treatment” connects Grabowski's emphasis on security with Bracken’s claim that Smith received none of the promised mental health care. Taken together, these evaluations present Smith’s self-harming behaviors and the failure to provide her with care as the result of CSC’s focus on prisoner containment.
The complicating actions and evaluations discussed so far construct a through narrative about institutional security being prioritized over mental health treatment and leading to prisoner abuse, which is then hidden by a code of silence. Rather than judging between two conflicting sides of the story, as in the first documentary, BW provides evaluations that complement and build upon one another to contribute a key point about the action. Furthermore, the arguments advanced in the main narrative are corroborated by the surrounding narrative. For instance, clips depicting The Fifth Estate’s investigative work corroborate the main narrative’s description of how a correctional nurse received threats, had her tires slashed, and was seen by guards as “nothing but a traitor” (Bracken) after coming forward about correctional supervisor John Torella having assaulted Smith (the fifth table in Figure 2). In particular, we are shown a video clip in which the nurse speaks to Gartner on the phone but was afraid to say too much and “absolutely refused to appear on camera” (Gartner) because to “show [her] face on national TV […] just gives the guards even more ammunition” (nurse). By telling aspects of the investigative story behind the main story, The Fifth Estate illustrates their key point: CSC has “done everything physically possible to hide the truth” (Falconer, the Smith family’s lawyer) that “Canadian prisons punish the mentally ill” (Gartner).
Since BW is a follow-up episode, it builds on the conclusions of the first documentary without needing to reiterate both sides of the story. It picks up where OC concludes, asking from the outset “Who did that to Ashley?” (Coralee Smith). Since CSC’s treatment of Smith was already revealed in OC to be punitive, inhumane and illegal, BW expands the discussion to construct a through narrative about how a correctional “code of silence” (Gartner) hides the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners. To advance this narrative and signify its truthfulness, The Fifth Estate mobilizes corroborative evaluations and provides viewers with a surrounding narrative that shows them what they are being told in the main narrative.
A key strength of most narrative analysis is that it allows researchers to consider the meaning and organization of a story as a whole, rather than breaking it into fragments based on thematic coding (Riessman, 2008; Schinkel, 2014). In this article, I contribute to narrative criminology by explicating a methodological approach to documentary analysis that goes beyond textual content to look at the ways that various aspects of a documentary film are woven together to create a coherent narrative. Using the narrative approach expounded in this article allowed me to examine the detail of each narrative component (e.g., clause, documentary scene, etc.) in Out of Control and Behind the Wall while simultaneously attending to how the meaning of each component depended on its framing and placement within the wider through narrative. The term “through narrative” was developed to capture how the narrative organization of the documentaries and the connecting points between scenes steadily advanced particular conclusions and interpretations of the Smith case and presented those conclusions as self-evidently true. In addition, the narrative approach I used allowed me to see how conflicting viewpoints were presented and reconciled within the first documentary and how the second documentary advanced a surrounding narrative about the documentarians’ investigative efforts in order to corroborate the main narrative’s claims about what is happening in Canadian prisons. Both of these narrative techniques (i.e., conflicting evaluations and the surrounding narrative) contributed to the persuasiveness of the documentaries’ arguments. By using a narrative approach, I was able to examine not only what was being said (i.e., textual content), but how the documentarians constructed certain meanings and arguments in ways that excluded other potential points of discussion, such as feminist critiques of what constitutes treatment in women’s prisons (e.g., Kilty, 2012; Pollack, 2006).
Narrative analysis can help us think about what narratives accomplish (e.g., the meanings they construct, the persuasive techniques they employ, etc.) without making assertions about narrator intention or audience reception (Wright, 2016). Although the type of narrative analysis I have conducted here cannot tell us whether a documentary persuades or resonates with audience members, it can provide insight about how narrative structure helps advance and draw attention to the point of a documentary. Furthermore, the organization of a documentary narrative may contribute to its reportability and newsworthiness, such as through unexpected plot twists, and to its credibility, such as through conflicting evaluations or behind-the-scenes details about the investigation. As they walk viewers through a narrative about what happened to Ashley Smith, The Fifth Estate weaves in arguments and interpretations that appear to flow naturally and logically from the events themselves. In this sense, the Fifth Estate documentaries illustrate how constructing a “through narrative” can help documentarians imbue their claims and interpretations with an air of veracity. This article shows how using narrative analysis to deconstruct the through narrative yields insights about the underlying claims of the documentaries and how they are advanced and supported.
In this paper, I have attempted to demonstrate how narrative approaches can be adapted and used by criminologists to analyze documentary films about corrections. According to Patterson (2013), “the necessary linguistic concepts and tools needed for performing systematic analyses are thin on the ground of narrative research, so it is important that we make appropriate use of those that are available to us” (p. 43). By drawing on Labov’s narrative approach and adapting it for documentary film analysis, I have endeavored to develop his theory and extend the usefulness of his conceptual tools. In addition, I have shown how narrative analysis informed a feminist criminological examination of two documentaries about the carceral death of a young woman in Canada (see Crépault & Kilty, 2017). In telling “the story of the research” (Presser & Sandberg, 2015, p. 14) and conceptualizing the notion of “through narrative,” this paper provides one approach to unpacking the narrative techniques of media constructions and contributes to the methodological toolbox of narrative criminology.
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Charissa Crépault Weir is a doctoral candidate in criminology at the University of Ottawa. Her Masters research mobilized tools of narrative analysis and the insights of feminist criminology to critically examine documentary film coverage of an imprisoned woman’s carceral death. Turning to gendered representations and practices in the courtroom, her doctoral research investigates the power dynamics of narrative construction during a high-profile sexual assault trial. Charissa’s work has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program. Previous publications have appeared in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society and Symbolic Interaction.
This research was supported by graduate student funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.