What “Making a Murderer” got wrong

It is a common mistake to associate journalism with truth. It is, indeed, a basic rule that journalists should get their facts straight. Journalism, however, is not only about telling the truth, but telling a story.

The story could be — and should be — fair and accurate, but it could also be just one part — or one side — of a story. Aren’t we often, indeed, talking about the “angle of the story”?

Should a journalist be always completely honest or can he deceive to get a story out in the first place?

Journalistic deception is “an act of communicating messages verbally (a lie) or nonverbally through the withholding of information with the intention to initiate or sustain a false belief. This definition not only covers deceptive practices in news-gathering but also the potential for deception in relationships between journalists and their audiences (e.g., staging and fabricated stories), including the omission–commission distinction.”

It includes lying about being a journalist, deceiving a source about the true motives of the interview, spinning an interview, etc… The issue is complex from both a moral and deontological point of view and it is often justified with the greater good of telling the story.

As a lawyer is successful when he is able to conceal his line of questioning in court, so the investigative journalist is “forced to deceive” his true motives because no one — in their right set of mind — would willingly implicate himself in a wrongdoing.

Brooke Kroeger demonstrates in Undercover Reporting, that journalists have a long history of deceiving to get a story: from lying to infiltrate an organisation to setting up fake enterprises in order to lure corrupt politicians.

“At its best, undercover reporting achieves most of the things great journalism means to achieve. At its worst, but no worse than bad journalism in any form, it is not only an embarrassment but can be downright destructive”, Kroeger wrote.

As shown by the case of investigative reporter Ken Silverstein — who set up a fictitious energy firm in Turkmenistan to lure lobbyists and congressmen in Washington — the risk with undercover reporting is that the method used becomes the story, reducing the “public interest” that justified it in the first place.

Then, there is outright lying about the facts.

Can, however, even a journalist who checked and gathered the facts correctly, deceive the audience by choosing an angle over another? Where is the line between dramatisation and distortion?

True crime programs are popular because they are sexy for the public. They are gruesome, morbid, nosy and they often present a manichean vision of the events: there’s a victim and there’s a bad guy.

An in-depth and long true-crime investigation into an old alleged miscarriage of justice has re-vamped the genre.

Serial, a podcast produced by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, became famous worldwide as listeners were hooked not only by the story, but by the investigative reportage methodology used to tell it.

The streaming-TV giant Netflix has picked up the interest. Sensing a good audience rating, it has produced Making a Murderer, an investigative documentary series on Steven Avery. Avery wrongfully spent 18 years in jail for sexual assault, before new evidence showed that he was innocent. His story is an exemplary case of miscarriage of justice. However, Avery was later arrested again for murder.

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Since the opening scene of the series, Avery is always presented as a victim of persecution by the local Sheriff’s office and as a victim of yet another miscarriage of justice. “He was always innocent”, says one of his acquaintances.

The idea that Avery is a victim is built up even before the series of facts is stated. We know he is innocent and that some wrongdoing was done to him before knowing why he was in jail the first time, or that he had been arrested again.

The authors of the documentary present their facts and evidences in a compelling way. Their investigation is remarkable for scope and gathering of details.

However, the audience is deceived by the angle chosen to tell the story. Some of the evidences against Avery are not stated, but most importantly, the authors wrote a storyboard that does not leave much doubts.

Netflix is known for using data about their watchers’ preferences to plan in detail every series produced. Audience ratings, thus, might have pushed the authors to choose an angle for telling Avery’s story.

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Where is the line, though, between dramatisation and deception? Can the audience ratings impose an angle on a story that might be lying or be deceitful to the audience?

As Schulz wrote in the New Yorker, “We still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project — bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers — comes to serve as our court of last resort.”

Serial worked because it always kept an element of doubt. Koenig presented all the facts and evidences and kept repeating that she was not convinced by many of the characters’ versions. The audience ratings benefited from it because the listeners felt like they were not only passive audience, but investigators themselves.

However, many were disappointed when in the last episode the producers failed to unveil “the truth”. Listeners felt deceived because the whole series built up the suspense, but it did not solve the mystery.

“Making a Murderer” avoided the same fate, but disgusted some viewers who saw it less as investigative journalism’s finest piece of work, and more as video-vigilante justice.

Serial shows that it is possible to dramatise the events and the storytelling by maintaining that it is reasonable to have doubts. Transparency also means to let the audiences make their own assessment of the information.

It is harder to expose our doubts than to think we are right. But pretending to hold the keys to the truth is — often instead — the worst form of lying.

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