Robert Meyer
"Making a Murderer" documentary shows the power of advocacy journalism
By Robert Meyer
February 11, 2016

Several years ago while waiting in a doctor's office, a man asked if I wanted to read the newspaper he had. I told him I was only interested in the editorial section. At that point he said "Well in that case you'll be wanting the whole paper." He had made a point that I had difficulty disagreeing with.

Almost every endeavor has unintended or unforeseen consequences. The Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," if nothing else, shows the persuasive power of advocacy journalism.

For those of you who were slumbering with Rip Van Winkle, the documentary revisits the nearly 10-year-old murder trial of convicted killer Steven Avery, seemingly in an effort to infer that Avery is the victim of a grand conspiracy. The infatuation with this case was a top national news story during January.

It's beyond the scope of this piece to provide all the background details, or to inform the reader of all the points brought out in the documentary series, but rather to illustrate the folly of arriving at an emotional conclusion by examining only one perspective.

In the scriptures, the imperfections of human nature are uncannily addressed. Proverbs 18:17 tells us..."In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines."(NIV) The epitome of this phenomenon is at large in the hysteria over "Making a Murderer." Only one perspective has been heard and people are rushing to judgment.

That human tendency places us at the suggestive mercy of the sentiments that the media desires to promulgate. If the media happens to be of a predominant ideological persuasion, then the message is likely to be monolithically unbalanced.

A perfect anecdote is a recent staff editorial from my local newspaper, suggesting that at the very least, there appeared to be a presumption of guilt bias against Steven Avery by those officials conducting the trial. The same editorial fails to mention the equally likely possibility that the producers of the documentary might have been predisposed to a certain agenda or outcome, thus emphasized only an abbreviated subset of evidence, which brought into question Avery's conviction.

One person suggested that we need to apply critical thinking to this issue. Yes! And one aspect of "critical thinking" is to recognize the plausibility of the other explanations for the facts were Avery actually innocent. It should be remembered that the standard for criminal jurisprudence is "beyond a reasonable doubt," not beyond conceivable possibility.

The viewing of the documentary has created a visceral outrage. There have been death threats and nasty messages send to the former prosecutor, allegations of misconduct or malfeasance by law enforcement agencies, requests for executive pardon from the governor, calls for courts to retry the case, and organized public protests. All this fervor in response to a film! And what does this assume about the verdict rendered by the jury? Many people with no previous knowledge of the case are certain Avery is innocent and was railroaded.

The phenomenon created by this documentary film bears familiar resemblance to the Michael Moore "documentaries" which presented selective evidence that amounted to cheerleading for a particular cause, while lighting a fire under the seats of potentially useful idiots. That is the power of advocacy journalism.

I am not omniscient, so I don't know the ultimate truth about Avery. What I do know is that when people are so easily persuaded, their gullibility can be used effectively by those wishing to make questionable causes into noble movements.

When we see this mentality on display in full regalia, it's easy to understand how so many bad political leaders are selected. People choose those candidates who promise the most security with the least amount of effort, rather than those who pledge consistency to limited government, constitutional principle and time-tested ethical values.

Our main-stream media, pop culture and the public education system are complicit in this sentimentality because they have encouraged emotionally-charged, monolithic and uncritical responses to issues.

I don't know if it's fair or accurate to say that all journalism is advocacy journalism. Yet I can't help thinking of the words of Scottish statesman Andrew Fletcher...

"Let me write the songs of a nation: I don't care who writes its laws."

Beware of those institutions writing the songs or generating the themes, because they shape public perception. In the words of commentator John Stonestreet..

"...the ideas that most effectively shape a culture are not necessarily those that are argued, but those that are embodied. They capture the heart and mind because they capture the imagination."

Very well stated and unfortunately, very true as well.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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