The media’s complicated role in Making a Murderer

In this March 13, 2007 file photo, Steven Avery listens to testimony in the courtroom at the Calumet County Courthouse in Chilton, Wis. (AP)

Netlfix’s explosive documentary series Making a Murderer pits police and prosecutors, who seem hell-bent on convicting a man of murder, against a pair of valiant defense attorneys. The 10-part series follows the 2007 murder trial of Steven Avery in Wisconsin. He had recently been exonerated after serving 18 years in prison for a rape that DNA evidence later attributed to another man. Amid the legal battle, viewers also get a glimpse of a rather offputting supporting character: the press. 

Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi use clips of the media in a manner that simultaneously advances their narrative and criticizes the press. But reporters were doing their jobs in searching for information—albeit in a sometimes unseemly fashion; the only difference was that this time, someone had a camera on them. In their depiction of the press, the filmmakers commit the same sin they attribute to local reporters: focusing unduly on isolated moments, rather than the bigger picture.

Dozens of TV, print, and radio reporters covered Avery’s six-week trial, in which the defense theorized that law enforcement, angered by Avery’s celebrity status after his exoneration and by a civil suit he filed against Manitowoc County and its former prosecutor and sheriff, had framed him. Many of these journalists had been on the case since November 2005, when the car of the murder victim, Teresa Halbach, was found in the Avery family’s junkyard. It made for a complex mess to be deciphered by the press, which was unaware it would become part of the story.

“Of course we were going to be covering it as we would a high-profile case,” says Angenette Levy—now known as “the hot reporter” in some online circles—who reported on the trial for Green Bay’s CBS affiliate, WFRV. “We were looking for answers. We were looking for truth.”

Making a Murderer does offer reason to scold the press. Take the scene in episode seven, in which reporters for a Fox affiliate beg for comment from Avery’s mother, who says their camera lights are obscuring her vision. Reluctant to back off, the journalists hound her through a snowy parking lot until she slams her car door in their faces. It gets worse. “Right now, murder is hot,” one jaded Dateline producer tells the filmmakers. “That’s what everyone wants, that’s what the competition wants, and we’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.” That attitude harms journalism and exposes its practitioners to public scorn.

 

 

But most of the reporters covering the Avery trial came from local outlets in and around Green Bay and Milwaukee to cover what was a humongous story in their state, and their methods were sometimes taken out of context. The documentary often shows Levy asking tough questions and responding to officials’ answers with a look of doubt. The film makes ample use of her facial expressions. Whether they’re meant to suggest the press’s hesitance to believe a particular theory, the fact that that theory is actually unbelievable, or nothing at all, is unclear. The internet, meanwhile, has held Levy up as the kind of skeptic journalism needs.

 

 

But as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s reporter on the trial tweeted this week: “Glimpses of any one facial expression may reveal nothing more than a reporter digesting lunch.”

At one point, Levy also asks the defense what the police officers accused of framing Avery should say to their embarrassed children. This moment in the documentary seems to imply that the local press may be overly sympathetic to law enforcement. But taken in the context of a daily news conference, the question looks more like a journalist seeking another entry into an important question: These are serious allegations. What do you have to back them up? It was designed to provoke an “aha moment,” as Levy puts it. “I don’t think anybody should read into my question [that] I was buying the state’s argument versus the defense.”

Nevertheless, the implication is there. Levy’s question lands in the middle of a film that regularly homes in on the defense’s concern that the media had poisoned Avery’s chances of getting an unbiased jury. The defense attorneys make a fair point, but saturation coverage by the local press was all but unavoidable, says Aaron Keller, who covered the case for Green Bay’s NBC affiliate, and who has since been dubbed the “silver fox” on social media.

Avery was known throughout Wisconsin because of his exoneration; news outlets had an obligation to thoroughly cover his alleged fall from grace. The families of both the victim and the accused also had an “above-average degree of comfort with the press,” says Keller, who is now an attorney and college professor in New Hampshire. “Had the families not made themselves available as often as they had in the very early stages of the investigation, the story would not have gained as much air time.” Wisconsin also allows cameras in the courtroom, which made the trial especially TV-friendly.

Here’s part of the problem: The reporters were scrambling for information, most of which came from the state or the defense. Some tried to request public records, like documents related to Avery’s time in prison or prior investigations. Others scored one-off interviews with Avery or his family. But most of the headlines came from the he-said-she-said of the courtroom, as is so often the case in trial coverage. The press was caught in a storm of spin. That looks bad on film, but the Netflix audience isn’t apprised of the scope or depth of the coverage. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, for example, provided consistently even-keeled and incisive reporting, and is now re-promoting its stories, perhaps hoping to use the film’s success to lure new readers.

The filmmakers, unlike the local reporters, had the benefit of time. They got to watch how the trials of Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was charged with helping him kill Halbach, played out, and make judgments based on the totality of what they’d seen. That’s the fundamental difference between a documentarian and a daily journalist: One gets the bird’s eye view, while the other is trying to climb out of an anthill. Both are susceptible to blindness.

There’s no way the filmmakers could include their almost 700 hours of video footage in Making a Murderer. It was an admirable feat to condense what they had into 10 deeply compelling hours. But that’s opened the series up to criticism from people who believe the film was one-sided or, in some cases, lacking context. “They just kind of used snippets,” says Emily Matesic, who covered the trial for Green Bay’s ABC TV affiliate, when asked how she feels about the media’s portrayal in the series.

With the success of the film, Demos and Ricciardi now find themselves at the center of another sort of media storm. A representative said they had received a barrage of interview requests, and their booked schedule meant they would be unable to speak with CJR before next week. Wisconsin’s local reporters, busy with daily coverage, don’t have much time to reflect, either. Several said they hadn’t yet watched Making a Murderer. But when those who have seen it look back on the footage, they’re proud of their work. For them, it was just another day at the courthouse.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha