‘Making a Murderer’ documentary affects Wisconsin community, student says

Posted February 3, 2016

The recent Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” has been getting people talking a lot about crime, corruption and innocence, but one person on the UW-River Falls campus tells of its effects on the Wisconsin town where it took place.

“Making a Murderer” is about the case of Steven Avery, a resident of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who was exonerated of a rape charge, freed from prison in 2003, but then put on trial and convicted for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.

The series was filmed over a course of 10 years and features interviews with family, friends and others who were acquainted with Avery during his two long court battles. The documentary has sparked people across the U.S to give their opinion about the evidence in the case.

However, for those who live in Manitowoc County, such as UWRF journalism major Tori Schneider, the story is a serious matter.

Schneider was in the fourth grade when the second trial for Avery was happening. She only had minor connections to the case as her father was from the city where Halbach lived, but beyond that did not have a good grasp of what was going on at the time.

“At the time, I was really only concerned with her (Hallbach),” she said. “I remember where I was when the verdict came, but I did not know about it beyond that…I remember seeing blue ribbons tied around things in her honor, and a lot of people still have blue hearts in their yards.”

Schneider recalled that after the trial ended, everyone seemed to get on with their lives. But now that the documentary has come out, things have changed greatly for Manitowoc County, where Schneider spent her winter break.

“Last Friday there was a protest at the courthouse. I think the side that was mostly represented there were trying to get Avery out of prison,” she said.

“If you search the hashtag ‘Manitowoc’ on Twitter you see a lot of hateful remarks about the town,” Schneider added. A lot of people in the town are disappointed that there is so much hate being cast over us, and a lot of people who don’t live there think Manitowoc is a terrible place.”

Manitowoc is a beautiful place to live, Schneider said, and many people from outside the town are projecting a lot of their disdain toward the whole place.

This is a side effect of the documentary, which according to Department of Journalism Chair Sandra Ellis is a difficulty faced with any work that brings to light social problems but leaves out details.

Journalistic standards can be hard to maintain in documentaries because they tend to be about single subjects and allow for the filmmakers to get close to their sources, a standard not held if one is to be objective in their presentation, Ellis said.

“You shouldn’t be making friends with the people that are your sources,” she said about the standards a reporter or fair documentarian should have. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly, but you should not be friends with your sources. You lose your distance and your judgments become flawed.”

At present, “Making a Murderer” is not being used in courses taught in the Department of Sociology, Criminology, and Anthropology. Criminology Professor Rich Wallace said that incorporating such a documentary into programs and studying it would take up a lot of time, given the length of the work.

“The criminology program as a whole is heavily focused upon the reasons why crime occurs,” he stated. “The content of ‘Making A Murderer’ is much more appropriate to a law or ethics course.”