January 2006. It was my first week on the job as a reporter for WBAY-TV (ABC) in Green Bay, Wis. My news director gave me an assignment that made my stomach churn.
I was told to go to Steven Avery’s property and ask his family members for their reaction to a new development: that the burned remains found on the Averys’ property belonged to Teresa Halbach. During the 45-minute drive to rural Manitowoc County, the photographer I was working with gave me a crash course on Avery’s convoluted story. The chilling and heartbreaking tale would dominate my professional life for the next two-and-a-half years.
I vividly remember the news conference a couple of months later where special prosecutor Ken Kratz described the horrific details in Brendan Dassey’s confession. I remember being told that, due to a perceived conflict of interest, there were no Manitowoc County officials participating in the investigation at the Avery property. I remember being shocked when it came out in court that this wasn’t true.
I remember meeting the extremely kind filmmakers from out East who seemed to have incredibly intimate access to the Avery family. I wondered how they had convinced Avery’s family members (who almost always refused to talk to reporters) to let them follow them around with cameras.
And I remember having a lump in my throat every time Mike Halbach spoke to the media about the sudden loss of his sister.
For many reasons, I quit journalism in 2008 and moved back home to Minnesota. Now I work on the other side of the fence — public relations — pitching stories to reporters, analyzing media events and training clients on how to work with the media. For my personal well-being, I hadn’t thought about Avery very much until a few months ago, when I heard Netflix had picked up the series.
My immediate thought was, “Here we go.” I knew this story line would enthrall the nation just as it did a much smaller sample size (northeastern Wisconsin) 10 years ago.
I watched “Making a Murderer” over the course of a few days and thought it was extremely well done. The filmmakers clearly worked their tails off and did a thorough job digging for audio and video footage to tell their story. My most notable “scene” comes in episode 8, where I am seen playing poker with other journalists as we wait for Avery’s verdict to come in. At the time, the main question floating around the media room was not whether Avery would be convicted, but when. Reporters laid friendly bets about how long it would take the jury to reach its verdict.
As hundreds of thousands of people binge-watch their way through the mesmerizing series, many are coming up with their own conspiracy theories and opinions as to “who done it.” While this makes for great conversation and lively debate around the water cooler, it can be dangerous when taken a step further.
Thanks to our fast-paced digital society, it is easy to become an activist today. This is important and exciting in many cases; I’m pleased to see a renewed conversation about ethics and fairness in law enforcement and our country’s justice system. But it also means people today have the power to share hasty, reactive judgments in a matter of seconds with a tweet or a Facebook post, or through the impulsive creation of an online petition.
It gets scary when nearly half a million people sign a petition requesting that the president exonerate a man — who was found guilty by a jury — based on what they learned from a one-sided piece of entertainment.
Some people might confuse the term “documentary” with “journalism.” “Making a Murderer” is a documentary. The filmmakers did not — and were not required to — follow journalistic standards. This includes giving equal voice to both sides, avoiding pandering to lurid curiosity, balancing the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort, and showing compassion for those who may be affected by coverage.
The series addresses only a handful of the nearly 1,000 pieces of evidence that were presented at Avery’s trial, and therefore many key facts were excluded. (Do a Google search for “What ‘Making a Murderer’ left out.”)
The filmmakers had one goal in mind: to create a riveting story. I give them kudos for accomplishing that goal. But with this column, I join many of my former colleagues who covered Avery’s trial and are speaking out. We are the unpopular, opposing voices shouting “There’s more to this story!” from a lonely band of reporters who covered the case.
I feel strongly that if everyone followed Avery’s six-week trial as closely as I did, far fewer would be signing a petition asking for his pardon.
Chris Duffy is director of media relations at Goff Public, a public relations and government relations firm in St. Paul.