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Case Study: “Making a Murderer”

Posted on March 22, 2016, at 3:15 p.m.
by Elizabeth Broussard.

When most people think of documentaries, they think of journalism, or the unbiased retelling of something that’s happened. From “Supersize Me” to “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” to “Man on a Wire,” documentaries have a way of bringing stories to life and putting faces to names on a page. But, what happens when a director begins taking liberties and the lines between unbiased journalism and advocacy begin blurring? There lies a subtle, sweet spot for public relations.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

The new Netflix docuseries, “Making a Murderer,” turned a thought-provoking documentary into an unconventional, grassroots campaign for the innocence of Steven Avery and the conviction of the United States justice system, proving that public relations has a very real role in this type of entertainment.

In 1985, Avery was convicted of first-degree sexual assault, attempted first-degree murder and false imprisonment of a young woman. He was found to be innocent after 18 years in prison, a reality that angered and worried those who followed the case. Furthermore, in 2005, only two years after being granted freedom, he was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach.

This past December, viewers were invited into the heartbreaking and confusing world of Avery when the binge-worthy series premiered on Netflix. The show plays into, what appears to be, America’s obsession with perplexing crimes and violent stories as it follows Avery’s life through years of unfair victimization. Following in the footsteps of the overwhelmingly successful podcast “Serial,” thousands of people were equally fascinated and horrified by the accounts they heard.

Shortly after the episodes were released, social media erupted and opinions started flying as if it were up to the American people to determine the verdict of Avery’s second case. Some people even began an online petition, hoping that President Obama would allow him to leave prison an innocent man.

However, far too many viewers have mistaken the show for something it is not. As Chris Duffy for StarTribune stated, “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.”

In other words, what these binge-watching viewers fail to realize is that the writers and directors of “Making a Murderer” could include whatever they felt necessary. As a result, a social commentary was initiated on unsubstantiated facts and the opinions of the two directors.

Therefore, the question stands: Is true-crime storytelling valuable in order to keep Americans engaged and aware of their First Amendment rights, or is it a dangerously misleading form of advocacy?

Please leave your thoughts below.

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