FRONTLINE-Sanford Collaboration Puts "The Choice 2012" Oral Histories Online

Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the PBS documentary program FRONTLINE are continuing their innovative collaboration with a new project that brings to light fresh perspectives on this year’s presidential candidates.

In conjunction with “The Choice 2012,” a FRONTLINE documentary that aired Tuesday, Oct. 9, the project archives eight hours of interviews from the documentary online, providing digital access to extensive conversations with figures who have influenced the lives and policy decisions of President Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney.


With 25 interviews published on the program’s website, the project provides an glimpse into the backgrounds and mindsets of the presidential candidates. To make it easy to pinpoint desired content, each interview is accompanied by a transcript tagged by themes.

“When we produce films, we generate dozens of hours of interviews that are edited down to create a one- or two-hour documentary,” said Philip Bennett, FRONTLINE managing editor and a Duke professor of public policy and journalism. Instead of limiting audiences to a 90-second clip of an interview in the final cut of a documentary, the project provides access to an extensive collection of interview videos, as well as primary source materials.

The archive includes interviews with a man who went on Romney’s Mormon mission with him in France, as well as President Obama’s high school classmates. Other more familiar figures include Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Ann Romney, wife of the GOP candidate.

The Duke-PBS partnership began in April of 2012, with FRONTLINE’s “Money, Power and Wall Street” documentary. The project was a tremendous success, with more than 150,000 unique views of the oral history interviews and more than one million users watching the films online.

The collaboration is part of the Jay Rutherfurd Living History Program, run by the Sanford School’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. The Rutherfurd Program produces interviews with prominent leaders who have been major participants in significant international or domestic events. The program publishes raw footage of interviews, using this material to illuminate stories in the public interest. 

“The spirit of the Rutherfurd Program has always been to give students and researchers deeper context about how a policy maker makes decisions,” said James Hamilton, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center.  “The FRONTLINE collaboration is very much part of our accountability mission. What we’re able to do is greatly expand the number of experts we talk to, the range of people exposed to these interviews, as well as the depth of these discussions.”

Looking forward, the partners seek to increase accessibility of the oral history archives by making them more interactive, including new technical tools to explore and use the material.

“There’s a lot of potential not just in creating films, but in mining the archives of films,” said Bennett, speaking of how the collaboration could benefit students, researchers and active citizens. “FRONTLINE has done hours of interviews with former Gen. David Petraeus. Imagine a searchable, interactive archive of interviews with figures like him. That exists nowhere else and would live on indefinitely.”  

Bennett also envisioned a system in which users could make their own documentaries by snipping their own clips and sharing them on blogs or YouTube.

Hamilton described a potential interaction between the Rutherfurd program and the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Reporters’ Lab, which uses a digital tool called Video Notebook to compile Twitter posts about an event for data mining. “By matching the date stamp in the Twitter feed to the time stamp in a video, we can better match seekers with the data they’re looking for and guide people to the rich data we have,” said Hamilton.