Enhance Tax Courses With Documentaries, News Segments, and Other Nonfiction Video Resources

By Ross Bengel, J.D., CPA, and Susan Gyeszly, CPA

Editor: Annette Nellen, J.D., CPA

Many students today are profoundly “visual learners.” They have grown up bombarded by a visual culture that includes the internet, video games, television, and movies. In contrast, “visual teaching” by tax professors often consists of a batch of PowerPoint slides and computations on a blackboard. Until the last decade, tax academics have had few viable audiovisual alternatives. But things have changed. Valuable nonfiction film and video resources for tax courses, specifically documentary films, news segments, and news stories can be found at many video libraries and video-sharing websites. These nonfiction offerings should help professors expand upon tax lessons, emphasize important social justice issues, and explain the role that taxes play in politics.

Why Should Tax Professors Use Nonfiction Video in the Classroom?

The value of a well-made documentary or news segment is manifold. It often imparts knowledge in a way students will remember. A well-made documentary or news segment tells a compelling story. And students often remember a story when they cannot remember facts or concepts. Nonfiction video also invites discussion, engaging students in a way that allows professors to reinforce those elusive facts and concepts. Videos can encourage critical thinking about the subject matter, along with practice in critical viewing skills. Many documentaries can also illustrate the use of rhetoric, enabling students to examine how arguments are constructed.

The video resources referred to in this article are not meant to be a substitute for responsible teaching. A teaching professional should be able to explain the tax law as well as any multimedia instructional tool. Video resources should be used to enhance the power of a lecture, supercharge class discussions, and increase student understanding. Many nonfiction tax films and videos have an intensely ethical component, providing a launching pad for a discussion of the ethics of tax policy or the tax profession. Others allow students to move beyond tax theory and the numbers to see the effect of the tax law on real people. The videos often expose students to social justice and tax fairness issues they might not confront in the real world. In short, many of these film and video resources give an instructor the opportunity to make a lasting impression on students.

Video Best Practices

The video best practice suggestions that follow are distilled from academic literature and interviews with teaching professionals and students. How to best use a specific video as an instruction aid depends on several factors. These include the instructor’s teaching/learning objectives, the length of the video, and whether the video is to be viewed in class or assigned as homework.

Video Selection

Best practices begin with a proper assessment of the usefulness of a video’s content. Although it may seem obvious, the instructor must view the video in its entirety to ensure that pedagogical goals are met. Nonfiction video should be chosen to complement the course’s targeted learning objectives. Videos should be accurate and use available time effectively. Once selected, links to videos included in lectures or as homework assignments should be added to the online course syllabus for student reference.

Video Presentation

How a video is presented often depends on its length. Short videos (five minutes and under) usually provide real-life context to a tax issue and can be woven into the fabric of the lecture with minimal introduction. These videos are truly an extension of the lecture itself, making the underlying tax concept more memorable.

Medium-length videos (six to 17 minutes) are more challenging to a student’s attention span. At a minimum, the professor must create an environment for attentive viewing. The instructor’s efforts may be limited to an introduction of the video to provide contextual background, sig nals as to what the student should watch for, and possible clues about the reporter’s point of view. In some cases, the instructor may also need to provide active learning assignments before the clip is presented in class. Video clips can be played in their entirety or can be broken up at various discussion points during viewing. Enough time should be allowed to consider and discuss the information presented in the video and to properly place the information in context. This may be especially important when dealing with topics such as tax fairness, equity, and ethics.

Maintaining the continuity of a lecture when playing a video clip or DVD can be difficult. Videos should be cued up for presentation. Even with such preparation, for videos being viewed on the web, technical difficulties can affect continuity. An inexpensive software program called Screenflow allows the presenter to record the computer video and audio of selected news clips from the internet for later playback.

The most demanding teaching and learning experience is the long video—longer than 17 minutes, including many that are over an hour. Professors may choose to present these and some medium-length videos as homework. The first challenge will be to get the student to actually view the assignment. This may necessitate developing special homework questions, a post-viewing quiz, or graded discussion forum to ensure completion. For longer videos, especially those assigned outside of class, content guidelines become more important and should be more extensive.

Special effort must be made to orient students to the learning objectives of the long video before viewing. A written and oral description of what students should watch for, along with a set of questions to address while viewing, will help ensure that students comprehend key points and maintain focus. Many longer documentaries, especially those produced in association with public television, have study guides that help professors with the learning process. For homework assignments, a post-viewing discussion is a must.

Video Reinforcement

Post-viewing discussions can be done by students in small groups with the instructor providing leading questions, or in class as a whole with the instructor acting as facilitator. Since tax topics are constantly changing, it is important for a professor to update video content with any new information about tax legislation or other current issues. Handouts and recent news articles can assist in extending discussions and student thinking outside the classroom.

Fair Use

Whenever possible, professors should obtain an educational use license to present a video in the classroom. The cost is usually nominal and provides financial support for entities that produce and/or distribute tax films. While it is an appropriate practice to obtain an educational use license, the “fair use” provisions of U.S. copyright laws enable educators to use some materials in the classroom without the copyright holder’s permission. The film or news segment must be legally acquired; however, a discussion of fair use is beyond the scope of this column. For further guidance, see Center for Social Media of the School of Communication of American University, “The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education,” and U.S. Copyright Office, Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Li brarians. Professors should consult with copyright experts on their campus for further direction on specific matters.

Highlighted Nonfiction Tax Video Resources

The highlighted video resources in the accompanying online tables have been divided into three groups by broadcast duration: short, medium-length, and long videos. The tables provide a listing of video resources and include hyperlinks for accessing the videos online. Although not exhaustive, the tables include videos across subject matter that should enhance and complement a wide variety of tax courses. These film and video resources not only provide instructional support for tax courses but are also highly entertaining. They can be enjoyed by students, faculty, practitioners, and many in the public at large who are interested in current tax issues.

The short videos are usually segments from television news programs or government-sponsored productions. They are an excellent resource for the professor seeking to provide real-life illustrations of a tax concept without sacrificing much class time. Many of the medium-length videos are segments from news magazine programs such as 60 Minutes. They provide a more in-depth discussion of a tax issue. Perhaps the most interesting videos for professors, students, and tax practitioners alike may be the long videos. Their length allows for even more in-depth exploration of subject matter. Some highlights follow.

Short Duration (Five Minutes and Under)

A one-minute video, “Louisiana’s Second Amendment Weekend Sales Tax Holiday,” describes that state’s tax holiday on the sale of guns and ammunition. Besides reinforcing learning objectives by providing a memorable example of an actual sales tax holiday, the video opens the door to discussing the merits of these types of tax holidays. “U.S. Firms Dodge Billions of Taxes by Moving Profits Overseas” is a three-minute transfer-pricing case study involving the drug Lexapro. “Why Are Minnesota Property Taxes Going Up?” describes the local revenue shortfall created when the state replaced the Minnesota homestead credit with an exclusion.

Other short videos show the benefit of choosing a CPA for tax preparation and describe the California sales tax revenue lost due to internet sales, as well as exploring other topics. “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Tax Accountant,” a favorite of tax practitioners, is a humorous look at the many travails of being a tax professional.

Medium Duration (Six to 17 Minutes)

Highlights of the medium-length videos include three 60 Minutes segments. “The New Tax Havens” discusses the exodus of American companies and jobs to countries such as Ireland and Switzerland because of differences in foreign and domestic tax rates. “Deficits: Taxing the Rich” describes an attempt to impose an income tax on high-income taxpayers in Washington state and the subsequent voter backlash.

“A Crack in the Swiss Vault” reveals the intriguing story of IRS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld, who exposed the secretive banking practices of Swiss bank UBS. Birkenfeld’s evidence resulted in more than $5 billion in fines and recovered taxes for the IRS and a recent $104 million whistleblower reward for Birkenfeld. “Tax Justice,” a segment of the PBS program Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, addresses the elusive concept of what is a fair tax system. Other medium-length videos include two historic Disney cartoons, produced in the 1940s for the U.S. government, to encourage federal income tax compliance.

Long Duration (Over 17 Minutes)

Three documentaries, I.O.U.S.A., I.O.U.S.A. Solutions, and Ten Trillion and Counting, focus on the causes of the burgeoning national debt, including the role of tax policy. The latter was produced as part of the PBS documentary series Frontline, which also produced Tax Me If You Can, a study of the bogus lease-in, lease-out (LILO) tax shelter scheme. Another documentary, also titled Tax Me If You Can but produced by Australian television, chronicles the tax haven scandal involving the LGT Bank of Liechtenstein that received notoriety in U.S. Senate hearings.

The Legacy of Proposition 13 discusses the history and impact of the California voter initiative that limited property tax assessments. Rising Tide describes the unintended consequences of tax legislation by revealing the effect of a 10% luxury tax on a New Jersey boat builder. National Geographic’s Inside the I.R.S. provides an overview of IRS processing and collections operations. Contempt of Conscience is the most current in a long line of war tax protest films. We’re Not Broke, released in late 2012, discusses how some U.S. corporations use transfer pricing and tax haven operations to avoid paying any income tax at all. The Emmy Award-winning Taxing the Poor studies the regressive state tax structure of Alabama and its effect on two low-income working families.


The goal of this column is to provide tax educators and practitioners with an initial bank of tax-related nonfiction film and video resources to enliven courses and add to real-life experience. It also details “best practices” for professors to use in video selection, presentation, and reinforcement. The highlighted video list is not complete, but it illustrates that new opportunities to advance tax education through video resources are now only a few keystrokes away.



Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif. She is a former member of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Executive Committee and is chair of the Tax Division Individual Income Tax Technical Resource Panel. Ross Bengel is the Paul A. Grosch Professor of Accounting, and Susan Gyeszly is an assistant professor in the College of Business Administration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. For more information about this column, contact Prof. Bengel at rbengel@lmu.edu or Prof. Gyeszly at susan.gyeszly@lmu.edu.


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