Docudrama From Different Temporal Perspectives: Reactions to NBC’s ‘Kent State’

Bennett Whaley, Edmund P. Kaminski, William I. Gorden and D. Ray Heisey, “Docudrama From Different Temporal Perspectives: Reactions to NBC’s ‘Kent State’” Journal of Broadcasting 24, no. 3 (Summer 1983): pp. 285-289.

This paper examines the reactions of the three groups of subjects to the NBC docudrama, “Kent State.” The subjects were faculty and staff members who were at the university during the time of the actual events and students currently enrolled at Kent State.

The docudrama weds light and heat, fact and emotion. The positive view suggested in this image is that of a 50-50 compatible relationship: from docu a promise of accurate description and account of events and from drama a simultaneous promise of a story and an involving experience. In practice, however, docu and drama are not completely compatible. Perhaps it is because of the portent of this new genre, that how docudrama should be defined and portrayed are matters of dispute. Docudrama raises practical and ethical issues: practical because producers and directors must rely on imaginative sources which are selective in perception and interpretation; ethical, because the burden of proof of the docudrama’s documentary side of production struggles against the use of embellishment which seemingly is inherent in drama.

Despite the conflicting ethical and practical issues involved in the creation of docudrama, the public’s hunger for explanation, interpretation and entertainment all come together in the docudrama. So much so that Bryski suggests that the networks have created a hybrid of the horror film and the documentary.1 This combination may have fulfilled a need, but at a cost. In Morrow’s words, television has become a “history devouring machine.”2

The very considerable dispute regarding the rhetorical purpose, current themes and ethical issues surrounding television docudramas,3 and the paucity of research as to how docudramas are perceived raise a general question. Are docudramas viewed as accounts which maintain fidelity to fact as the nightly news broadcast is pledged to be, or are they seen as dramatic-fictional take-offs on the theme of an historical event? And the more specific question: does time distance of audiences from an event affect the believability of its televised portrayal?


In order to address the specific research question of th effect of first hand knowledge of an event and reactions to a docudrama on that subject, three groups of subjects were assembled: (1) students currently enrolled at Kent State University, (2) faculty members of ten or more years of service who were thus associated with the university during the events of May 4, 1970, and (3) staff employees of ten or more years of service to Kent State. The showing of NBC’s docudrama “Kent State” thus permitted a unique opportunity to ascertain reactions from viewers who naturally identified with the institution and the characters featured in the docudrama as well as allowing for the assessment of reactions by viewers who had no firsthand experience of the events depicted. The samples for the study were selected by mailing faculty of 10 years service to KSU.4 The student sample was selected from basic speech communication courses. Eighty-nine students responded.

The reactions of these three groups of viewers to the docudrama “Kent State” were assessed in two ways. Following the airing of the docudrama a two part questionnaire was administered. The first part contained a 10-item seven-point semantic differential scale which assessed presentational believability. The 10 dimensions were as follows: True-Untrue, Factual-Contrived, Believable-Unbelievable, Unbiased-Biased, Representative of Reality-Nonrepresentative of Reality, Good-Bad, Effective-Ineffective, Fiction-Nonfiction, Nondramatic-Dramatic and Objective Nonobjective. After the questionnaire had been administered to faculty, staff and students, Chronbach’s Alpha was computed to assess the reliability of the instrument. Two unreliable items were noted: the Biased-Unbiased dimension and the Nondramatic-Dramatic dimension. With these items removed the standardized alpha coefficient was 84. The two unreliable items were thus dropped from any further statistical analysis. Further the remaining eight items were factor-analyzed which revealed that all items loaded on a single factor.5

Table I
Mean Ratings of the Believability of the Docudrama




Standard Deviations






The second part of the questionnaire consisted of an open-ended question concerning additional reactions to the docudrama. Examination of the open-ended responses revealed that the exception rule seemed to be the unspoken motivation for the most of the comments, that is, those sections of the docudrama which struck the viewers as differing from their own view of reality were worthy of their comment. The content of the open-ended responses was thus classified into objections followed by commendations. The student subjects, of course, had no firsthand basis for judgment and thus their responses were considered and classified separately.6


In order to compare the ways in which the three groups of subjects perceived the overall presentational believability of the Kent State docudrama, a single factor analysis of variance was conducted using the total scores across the eight items of the semantic differential scale as the dependent measure. These total scores had a possible range from (8) “unbelievable” to (56) “believable. These average group total scores were deemed to be the most appropriate units of measure owing to the unidimensional nature of the instrument. The means for each group are displayed in Table 1.

Perhaps the most interesting result is the correspondence between the faculty and student views of the believability of the Kent State docudrama as compared to the staff evaluation. Similarity in believability scores exists despite the fact that the students were separated from the event by more than 10 years and had no firsthand knowledge of what happened on May 4, 1970. The staff, on the other hand, shared the experience of these events with the faculty yet their evaluation of the docudrama differed significantly from the faculty view (F = 23.11, df = 2/205, p. < .01).


This investigation sought to discover if firsthand knowledge of an event affects the believability of a docudrama on that subject. Analysis of statistical data produced two observations. First, respondents with firsthand knowledge of an event who can and do make critical assessments of the presentation can still find the presentation believable overall. This is shown most clearly in an examination of the mean believability scores for the faculty and students. Although these groups were separated in time from the event, student and faculty perceptions concerning the believability of the docudrama did not differ significantly. The subjective responses of faculty revealed a keen sense of historical detail and a willingness to criticize departures from firsthand recollection. For example, one faculty member noted that in the docudrama “the incendiaries got the ROTC building burning at once: the real ones were pretty lousy at starting fires, for it took about 20 minutes. I was there.” The staff as well were highly critical of the presentation and exhibited lower believability scores than either faculty or students. The difference in faculty and staff perceptions leads to the second observation, that those with firsthand knowledge of an event do not have their evaluations of the event changed by a docudrama on that subject.

The “town-gown” hostility at the time of the May 4 shootings was commented on by both faculty and staff. One staff member commented about the docudrama: “I don’t think it showed enough about how the students wrecked [sic] the town and how really obnoxious they were. We were made to believe that they were all good kids who were wronged, and darnit, they weren’t.” This polarization of the academic and local communities has been documented historically.7 The bias in perceptions has, in fact, been noted in other studies dealing with the May 4 incident.8 Thus, our findings are not particularly surprising in this regard. It should be remembered that in this university, as in many others, the staff, as contrasted to the faculty, is less mobile and is largely composed of local residents with strong attachments to the local community. In the case of the Kent State shootings, many of the guardsmen were from the Kent area. Local sympathy might well be expected to lie with the guard rather than the students and other “outsiders.” Our findings concerning faculty and staff differences in portrayal of persons bear out this contention. In short, those who had negative feelings about the actual events had negative feelings about the docudrama and vice versa. What is encouraging about this persistent polarization is that even a believable docudrama such as “ Kent State” appeared to be, cannot change history for those who can present the “I was there” challenge.

Where the greatest potential for danger in docudrama lies is in its ability to teach audiences who have no firsthand knowledge. The students presently at Kent State can scarcely be said to represent a completely uninformed audience. There are symbolic reminders of the event on campus and, far from being forgotten, there is a commemorative ceremony held annual which receives media coverage. For these reasons it would be logical to assume that Kent State students are an informed and therefore critical audience, lacking only firsthand knowledge. Yet, the students used in this study found the “ Kent State” docudrama to be highly believable despite their critical advantage over a completely naïve audience. One student said that the film “made the events real.”

The “reality” of events recreated by a docudrama for even the most informed audiences is at the crux of the issue. One side is the ability of television to make people feel a historical event in a way that mere physical reminders cannot. Even those who were present at the actual event are made to relive the time by the strength of the medium. The faculty and staff respondents were acutely aware of the potential of the power of television in this regard. Those who did not watch the docudrama did so because they could not or would not “relive” the events portrayed. On the other side of the issue is the “history devouring” capability of television. The medium has the power to make an audience relive a history which either never happened or contains gross errors. From our investigation one thing becomes clear – disclaimers, good intentions and even prior information can do little to mitigate that power.


A. Bennett Whaley is an Assistant Professor of Telecommunications, Kent State University. He received his Ph.D. degree from Indiana University in 1980. His research interestes are in media effects generally and with the manipulative potential of production techniques specifically.

Edmund P. Kaminski is an Assistant Professor of Telecommunications, Kent State University. He received his Ph.D. degree from Michigan State University in 1978. His research interests are in media effects, persuasion and audience analysis.

William I. Gordon is a Professor of Speech Communication, Kent State University. He received his Ph.D. degree from Purdue University in 1958. His research interests are in how organizational culture is created, nurtured and changed and in particular the superior-subordinate context.

D. Ray Heisey is a Professor of Speech Communication, Kent State University. He received his Ph.D. degree from Northwestern University in 1964. His research interests are in rhetoric of conflict, international communication, Middle East rhetoric and rhetoric of the May 4th incident.


1. Bruce Bryski, “The De-Rhetorical’ Function of Docudrama: A Generic Approach” (paper presented at the Eastern Communication Association Annual Convention, Pittsburgh, 1981).return to text

2. Lance Morrow, “The History-Devouring Machine: Television and the Docudrama,” Media and Methods 15: 18-20, 62-63 (October 1978).return to text

3. Thomas W. Hoffer and Richard Alan Nelson. “Docudrama on American Television,” Journal of the University Film Association 30:21-27 (Spring 1978); and Thomas W. Hoffer and Richard Alan Nelson, “Evolution of Docudrama on American Television Networks: A Content Analysis, 1966-1978,” Southern Speech Communication Journal 45:149-163 (Winter 1980).return to text

4. The response rate for faculty was 41 percent, for staff 19 percent and 100 percent for students.return to text

5. The procedure was varimax rotation with commonalities on the diagonal.return to text

6. William I. Gorden, D. Ray Heisey, A. Bennett Whaley and Edmund P. Kaminski, “The ‘I Was There’ Challenge to ‘ Kent State’” (Division of Rhetoric and Communication, Kent State University, March 1983).return to text

7. Peter Davies, The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to American Conscience (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Girous, 1973).return to text

8. J. Gregory Payne, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Selected Interpretations of the May 1970 Kent State Incident,” (Ph. D. diss., University of Illinois, 1977); and Phillip Thompkins and E. V. Anderson, Communications Crisis at Kent State (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1971).

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