Making a Hit: How Netflix Investigative Documentaries Shape Public Opinion

Netflix’s original investigative documentaries have left viewers reeling, morally outraged and confused, but most notably, they’ve left viewers eagerly wanting more. These investigative documentaries provide fascinating, and sometimes morbid, looks at real people and their real-life stories. They tell stories about criminals we may have never heard of, fugitives who have gotten away, and the people whose lives were affected along the way. Investigative documentaries oftentimes divide viewers on just exactly who is right and wrong while casting doubt on the American justice system and ultimately shaping public opinion.

This was the case in Netflix’s breakthrough 10-episode series, “Making a Murderer.” The documentary tells the story of Steven Avery, who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder and later exonerated after 18 years in prison. Two years after his release, he was arrested for murder and convicted. Following Avery’s arrest, his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was implicated as an accomplice. In the documentary, Dassey’s former criminal defense attorney, Len Kachinsky, is shown supporting the prosecutor’s case and coaching his client to confess. Dassey is eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The documentary series highlights several issues that have since sparked nationwide debates. They raise questions about the ease in which the justice system can be seemingly corrupt. Sending an innocent man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and the issue of effective representation are just two debatable topics.

In his research paper, “Unequal Assistance of Counsel,” Peter Joy, professor at @WashULaw, the online Master of Laws in U.S. Law program from Washington University in St. Louis, says, “There is now, and has always been, a double standard when it comes to the criminal justice system in the United States. The system is stacked against you if you are a person of color or are poor … . The potential counterweight to such a system, a lawyer by one’s side, is unequal as well. In reality, the right to counsel is a right to the unequal assistance of counsel in the United States.” This was the case in “Making a Murderer.”

Other popular Netflix investigative documentaries such as “The Keepers,” a seven-part Netflix original series chronicling the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik; and “Amanda Knox,” a documentary following an American woman who was imprisoned in Italy for murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy; also pose difficult questions surrounding institutional coverups and innocence all while shaping public opinion.

So what exactly does the media have to do with public opinion? According to Boundless Political Science, media “promotes cynicism about government agenda setting – telling us what to think about framing.” It shapes how we think about what is being presented.

Investigative documentaries such as “Making a Murderer,” “The Keepers” and “Amanda Knox” present true crime stories in a way that places the viewer in the center of the story. They are shaping viewers’ public opinion by calling into question the effectiveness of the justice system. Viewers need to be aware that stories are framed to provoke a response – liker outrage or support – and remember to remain objective even as they are being drawn in.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.