Can storytelling rescue us from disinformation?

The Schwarzman Center and Yale’s Thomas Allen Harris will host filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and Clark Burnett for a discussion on film and social justice.
Clark Burnett ’19, Ken Burns, Thomas Allen Harris, Sarah Burns ’04

Clockwise from left: Clark Burnett ’19, Ken Burns, Thomas Allen Harris, Sarah Burns ’04

When told well, stories provide people a way to relate, forge connections, and convey culture and values that unite communities. But stories can also be used to promote bias, distort perceptions, and shape false realities.

With the advent of digital media and social platforms, stories — including false and dubious ones — reach millions of people at the click of a button. This has led to what some observers call “an information crisis” and to unprecedented cultural divides over science, shared values, and the truth itself.

Today, the Yale Schwarzman Center (YSC) will host two award-winning filmmakers, Ken Burns and Sarah Burns ’04, who use the power of storytelling to promote truth and social justice in a time of disinformation. Sarah Burns is the author of “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of City Wilding,” and a producer, writer, and director of the documentary “The Central Park Five.” Ken Burns is the producer of the documentaries “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” and others, and a co-founder of Florentine Films.

To register for “The Art of Storytelling in a Time of Disinformation,” click here.

During the event, Yale Professor Thomas Allen Harris, senior lecturer in African American Studies and Film & Media Studies, will interview the documentarians, along with Florentine Films associate digital producer Clark Burnett ’19. The online event will also showcase multiple video clips, including an excerpt from Harris’s film, “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, and Sarah Burns’ “The Central Park Five.”

In addition, the participants will discuss the role of UNUM — a media platform drawn from Florentine Films’ resources — which makes use of Ken Burns’ vast library of work to place current events in their historical context and trace themes throughout history.

Established in 2015 to foster collaboration, wellness, and belonging, the Yale Schwarzman Center uses the arts to challenge students to think critically, confront assumptions, and explore and debate ideologies.

By selecting moments in history that help provide perspective on current events, the organizers of “The Art of Storytelling” hope to tell stories that build empathy and humanize newsmakers through a healthy balance of character development and facts. “It’s important to prevent two-dimensional portrayals that only focus on the mythology of the character instead of the true human experience,” Burnett said.

In the 1980s, he said, racial fears about young men were weaponized, leading to the quick spread of disinformation about the Central Park Five, five Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City. In her documentary, Sarah Burns humanizes the men who were accused, allowing the audience to form an emotional connection with them, before diving into the failures of the justice system.

Once people buy into the story, they are more open to the facts and the very real circumstances that led to the wrongful convictions of Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Antron McCray,” Burnett said. “As filmmakers, we must build empathy to break down the walls of what the person believes is the truth.”

Said Harris, “When we invest in the art of storytelling, it becomes evergreen. This is powerful because we don’t make films just for the present moment but to stand the test of time and be as relevant today as when they were made. These films give touchstones to people so that they have a deeper understanding and ground [us all] in the truth of who we are.”

Sarah Burns said she considers it a privilege and a responsibility to provide a platform for subjects to share their powerful and personal experiences and to be the narrators of their own story. “Documentary storytelling is not about perfection,” she said, “but about the human stories that inspire change and continue exposing people to new ideas.”

When it comes to the pursuit of truth, she said, bias must be kept in check.

It’s not lost on me, as a white person, [that] it was probably easier for me to have the platform to tell stories,” she said. “That’s why it is critical to have a diverse team of filmmakers, consultants, advisors to tell the story responsibly and thoroughly.”

Through cinematic storytelling and the uncovering of difficult truths, documentary filmmakers help people discover new viewpoints and share in the human experience.  

We aren’t going to answer all the questions; we are going to introduce you to certain events, topics and characters that you’ll care about,” Sarah Burns said. “We want you to ask yourself, ‘How does this apply to my life or my own community?’ To inspire conversation and spur action: that’s the role of a storyteller.”


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