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Making a Believer: Discourse Construction in “Making a Murderer” and the Formation of Audience Allegiance By Bonnie van den Bergh

When first released by Netflix in December 2015, the true crime documentary Making a Murderer sparked a tidal wave of interest in the case of Wisconsin resident and murder convict Steven Avery, whose story lies at the heart of the series. The documentary follows the thought provoking tale of Avery’s wrongful conviction and eighteen year incarceration, followed by his exoneration and a subsequent murder charge, which now sees Avery back in jail for life. Focusing on the ambiguous facts surrounding Avery’s supposed second crime and highlighting suspicious elements of the police’s investigation of the case, creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos seem to be questioning the American justice system, and even more so, questioning Avery’s guilt.[1]

This questioning is echoed within popular responses to the series, as many people are seen voicing their opinions on whether Avery is guilty online, with some even putting forward theories about what ‘really’ happened. Many such comments can be found on the series’ official Facebook page. Furthermore, several petitions were started asking for Avery’s exoneration, as well as for his nephew Brendan Dassey, who was convicted as an accomplice to his uncle’s crime.[2] One of the petitions started by the public is directed at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has already denied any support from his side.[3] Another, more ambitious one aimed to reach President Obama, who also distanced himself from any involvement with the case.[4] The United States president stated that he was not in any position to grant the requested pardon, as it was a matter of state and thus outside of his jurisdiction.[5]

The fact that so many people (actively) involved themselves with Avery’s case after watching Making a Murderer—about 275,000 viewers signed the petition to the President—shows the far reaching impact the series made. However, it should be noted that the documentary never fully rules out Avery’s involvement, or has any tangible proof that he was framed. In fact, most of what is presented is mere speculation. Why then, are so many viewers so convinced of Avery’s innocence after watching the series?

An answer to this question might be glimpsed at by looking through some of the criticism the docu series received. Claims have been made by some that the series constituted a very one-sided view towards the Avery case, the creators aligning themselves mostly with his side, and the series constituting “emotional manipulations” so as to steer its audience in one particular direction, namely to believe that Avery was framed.[6] As Kathryn Schulz points out in her article for the New Yorker called “Dead Certainty”, creators Ricciardi and Demos have denied allegations of the series having a specific project to promote Avery’s innocence, claiming that “they simply set out to investigate Avery’s case”.[7] However, Schulz believes there is convincing proof within the series which shows that they were in fact taking a stance, as she argues that “the documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory”.[8] She states that “the filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savoury past”, as well as omitting important pieces of evidence against him.[9]

The comments made by Schulz and other critics of Making a Murderer seem to indicate that there is something within the series’ internal project which steers viewers´ opinions of the Avery case in a certain direction. Although these comments are a good starting point, a more thorough investigation of the docu series’ discourse and how this is constituted can provide a clearer picture of exactly how the filmmakers seem to convince so many of their viewers that in actuality, Steven Avery did not convict the crime he is serving a sentence of life imprisonment for. A valuable way of conducting such an investigation is by inspecting the documentary in terms of the four parameters of nonfiction discourse as set out by Carl Plantinga in his book Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film.[10]

 Nonfiction Discourse: How is the Projected World Presented?

 Exploring the nonfictional film’s constitution, Plantinga explains how its surface features, most notably those of sound and moving images, “gain meaning in relation to deeper strands of textual organization.”[11] What he means by this is that meaning is mainly generated in context, pointing out the significance of the nonfiction film’s discourse. To Plantinga, discourse refers to how subject material is presented, opposed to what is presented—he refers to the latter as the “projected world”.[12] Within the context of a film’s discourse, Plantinga acknowledges four principle strategies “by which the projected world or story events are communicated”: selection, order, emphasis, and voice.[13] Recognizing that nonfiction films might make misleading or even false truth claims, Plantinga argues that investigating the film’s employment of these strategies can give valuable insights into a film’s specific project, or the accuracy of its projected world.[14]

Although Plantinga’s claims are made in relation to nonfiction film, they are easily transportable to the realm of documentary series, where questions about discourse seem equally valid. As such, the next step will be to investigate Making a Murderer in terms of the four strategies indentified above.

Selection

In the making of a documentary, the creators have to select which material they want to include in the end product, and which to leave out. Plantinga points out the importance of analysing these selections and omissions in order to gain more insights into the rhetorical project of the work.[15] He argues that the process of selection is often tied to questions of bias and objectivity, and that, for example, leaving important chunks of information out of a work can seriously affect its credibility.[16] Therefore, it is important to investigate exactly what the creators of the documentary are presenting their audiences with, and what they are perhaps keeping from them.

It has already been mentioned that the series has been accused of leaving out certain facts and multiple pieces of evidence against Avery that were presented during his trial. There are however more general points to note when it comes to omission and selection. Most importantly, in Making a Murderer the audience is mostly aligned with the side of the defence and Avery’s family. The cameras follow around Avery’s lawyers as they investigate and present their case in court, while also showing snippets of interviews the series creators did with them. Looking at Avery’s accusers, they are only very rarely interviewed by the makers. Instead, footage from interviews with the press, press conferences, and footage of the trial are mostly used to illustrate the accusers’ side. All in all, it is the side of the defence which gets considerably more screen time in Making a Murderer.

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Furthermore, the series focuses heavily on Steven Avery’s family, and documents their plight while Steven is in jail. Phone conversations between family members, interviews with his parents, ex-fiancée, sister, and other members of the Avery family all figure heavily within the docu series.

As Plantinga points out, choices of selection can reveal a certain point of view, and this definitely seems to be the case in Making a Murderer.[17] Although the makers might deny it, their choice to focus on the side of the defence causes a certain audience alignment with the Avery’s, which can influence how viewers think about Steven Avery’s innocence or guilt. Being constantly confronted with people who firmly believe Avery to be innocent, and being given an abundance of information to seemingly match this conviction, such an alignment will ultimately influence viewers’ opinions.

Furthermore, the alignment with Avery’s family’s suffering also adds another dimension to this, as it is very hard not to be sympathetic to what they are going through. The series documents Avery’s parents’ relentless struggle to free their son spurred on by an unwavering confidence in his innocence, which does not leave them out of harm’s way: the final episode shows a broken family and the end of the family business, emphasising the loss on a familial scale. Such an alignment spurs on the sense of injustice which is emphasised throughout the series, placing viewers more firmly—although perhaps unconsciously—in camp Avery.

Order

Turning his attention to order, Plantinga notes how the order in which a nonfiction film presents its information is mostly in accord with its rhetorical project or strategy.[18] Ordering information in a specific way, a nonfiction film can highlight some data while also giving less primacy to other data, or even ‘burying’ it among other events and information.[19] As a result, the order in which a nonfiction films presents its information can impact the way it is viewed by the audience.

Plantinga identifies the opening sequence of a nonfiction film as of primary importance when it comes to influencing the way audiences will interpret the information given to them throughout the work.[20] He quotes Menackem Perry’s idea of “the primacy effect”, which holds that spectators make a certain hypothesis of how to interpret the information given to them very early on, and once this is done they are “stubborn in their tendency to retain them through the duration of the text, and to resist alternative frames”.[21] As such, the film’s prologue is important in signalling to the viewer how to interpret and comprehend what is to come.[22]

Looking at the opening of Making a Murderer, it seems the viewer is cued from the start to believe that Steven Avery was framed for murder. The series starts with a shot of Avery coming home after wrongfully serving eighteen years in jail. The mood is uplifting, and a happy Avery is seen reunited with his family. Planted within the context of Avery’s family, the viewers are thus already invited to align themselves with them. Fairly quickly, we hear a voice-over which states that “law enforcement despised Steven Avery. Steven Avery was a shiny example of their inadequacies, their misconduct.”[23] Although this comment is quickly balanced out by a retorting statement of one of the police officers involved, it is then followed up by an even more telling comment: “I did tell him be careful […] I said Manitowoc County is not done with you. They are not even close to being finished with you.”[24] After this, the screen fades to black and the intro song begins.

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By starting the series like this, the creators are immediately putting forward the idea that when it comes to Avery’s second conviction, he was indeed set up by the police. Putting this message at the beginning of the series, the audience is invited to take note of this, and carry it with them throughout the viewing process. As such, they are primed to think a certain way or to form a certain hypothesis, similar to the way outlined by Plantinga. The introduction of Making a Murderer thus seems to set up a certain rhetorical project, which is reaffirmed throughout the ten episodes.

Emphasis

The third strategy outlined by Plantinga is emphasis. He simply states that an element may be emphasised or de-emphasised through structural arrangement, as well as by stylistic devices such as lighting and camera angles.[25]

It has already been noted by critics of Making a Murderer that it sometimes glosses over or leaves out evidence that would make the case against Avery stronger. Schulz mentioned the fact that the series rather fleetingly deals with Avery’s earlier run-ins with the police.[26] In the first episode, Avery’s former misconducts are indeed acknowledged, but quickly moved on from to discuss the more positive elements of Avery’s life, such as his status as a loving father. Furthermore, the series notes how the Avery name was already seen rather negatively in the community they lived in, as they owned a different kind of business, were poorly educated, and did not get involved in most community activities.[27] By emphasising these aspects of the family, the series is setting up the idea that they would form an easy target for a police force and community that were already not on their side.

When it comes to stylistic devices, the series, especially in the last episode, has a lot of lingering shots of the empty Avery salvage yard, signalling the loss of the family. Other lingering shots occur throughout the series when in interviews with the family, the camera focuses closely on the faces of the interviewees, most notably Avery’s mother. Such a use of close-ups often figures in fiction films, and is said to encourage empathy within viewers as they are closely confronted with a character’s emotions.[28] Within the context of Making a Murderer, this emphasis on the emotions of Avery’s family helps to align the audience with them.

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Voice

 Plantinga identifies voice as the final of his discourse strategies, which to him indicates “an implicit stance or attitude” taken by a nonfiction film towards what it presents.[29] This voice does not have to come forward through for example a voice-over, but can also just be expressed implicitly. To illustrate this idea, Plantinga notes how a nonfiction film can be “angry and hostile” in its representation, or “ostensibly objective”, among other things.[30]

As illustrated in the discussion of the other strategies, Making a Murderer continually posits itself on the side of the Avery family, whether the makers will own up to this or not. By looking at Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s convictions from that perspective, the voice that the series seems to adopt is best described as damning. The idea of the injustice done to these two men perpetuates the series, as it outlines a rather damning report of the American justice system through Avery’s case. However, as noted by Schulz, the series is not so much concerned with criticising the American justice system as it is with criticising it in just this instance.[31] Other examples of similar cases are never introduced, and the focus remains entirely on Avery. It is this focus which points to the idea that the makers’ intentions were perhaps slightly more partial than they would like to admit.

Conclusion

Judging from the reaction to the docu series, Making a Murderer convinced many viewers that Steven Avery was in fact innocent of the crime that he was convicted for. Although the series rightfully points out many mishaps in the investigation and trial of both Avery and his cousin Brendan Dassey, any real and conclusive evidence that Avery is not guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach is not provided, making the reaction by the public that much more remarkable. However, looking at how the series is constructed can give more insight into why many viewers are so convinced of Avery’s innocence. Investigating the series’ use of the four strategies outlined by Plantinga—selection, order, emphasis, and voice—it can be concluded that through the use of these devices the filmmakers were able to manipulate the audience’s response. As this is achieved on a structural level, this type of manipulation might not be immediately obvious, but as the analysis above as shown, it is certainly there. Ironically then, the series shows us that it is just as easy to make an innocent man, as it is to make a murderer.

Works Cited

[1] Making a Murderer. Dir. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. Netflix. Web. 19 May 2016.

[2] Helmore, Edward. “Making a Murderer spurs 275,000 viewers to demand pardon for central character.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 9 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 May 2016.

[3] Helmore, Edward. “Making a Murderer.” Idem.

[4] Legaspi, Althea. “White House Responds to ‘Making a Murderer’ Petition.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 7 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 May 2016.

[5] Legaspi, Althea. “White House Responds.” Idem.

[6] Dickey, Bronwen. “The Emotional Manipulations of Making a Murderer.Slate. Slate, 15 Jan 2016. Web. 19 May 2016.

[7] Schulz, Kathryn. “Dead Certainty.” New Yorker. New Yorker, 25 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 May 2016.

[8] Schulz, Kathyrn. “Dead Certainty.” Idem.

[9] Schulz, Kathyrn. “Dead Certainty.” Idem.

[10] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

[11] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 83

[12] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 84

[13] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 85

[14] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Idem.

[15] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 86

[16] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 88

[17] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Idem.

[18] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 89

[19] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Idem.

[20] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 90.

[21] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Idem.

[22] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Idem.

[23] “Eighteen Years Lost.” Making a Murderer. Dir. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. Netflix. Web. 19 May 2016.

[24] “Eighteen Years Lost.” Making a Murderer.

[25] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Pp. 97-98.

[26] Schulz, Kathryn. “Dead Certainty.” Idem.

[27] “Eighteen Years Lost.” Making a Murderer.

[28] Bruun Vaage, Margrethe. “Fiction Film and the Varieties of Empathic Engagement. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34.1 (2010): 158-179. Web. 19 May 2015. P. 160.

[29] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. P. 100.

[30] Plantinga, Carl. Rhetoric and Representation. Idem.

[31] Schulz, Kathryn. “Dead Certainty.” Idem.