Famed Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison has a dramatic delivery that hearkens back to old-time radio mystery shows. Whether he is cocking his head like a curious bird during interviews to express skepticism of a suspect’s dubious story or leaning with his arms crossed against, well, anything, the show has made him a cult icon.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. … Suppose I’ve built up over the years strange quirks that for some reason are familiar to people,” Morrison told BuzzFeed News this May about his metamorphosis from hard newsman to noir-style narrator. “Eventually, I think anybody who’s in this line of work for a period of time…we are probably better off making fun of ourselves than we are taking ourselves too seriously.”
When it premiered in March 1992 with co-anchors Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley, the show was originally a newsmagazine; it’s since evolved to focus predominantly on real-life murder mysteries. Long before the massive popularity of other true crime shows like Making a Murderer, The Keepers, and Serial, Dateline — celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — was already must-see TV for armchair detectives.
BuzzFeed News caught up with Morrison and some of the show’s other mainstays to uncover what makes up the perfect Dateline formula, how to interview people about the worst day of their life, the surprising cooperation of law enforcement, and the tricks Dateline uses behind the scenes to maintain suspense throughout an episode.
Bill Hader’s famous caricature of Morrison on Saturday Night Live presents the silver-haired correspondent as a gleeful ghoul, a modern-day true crime equivalent of horror host Vincent Price. Morrison said he’s “not complaining” about the imitation, though he stammered and trailed off when the subject turned to himself. Dateline executive producer David Corvo said maybe Morrison’s “a little embarrassed” by the attention.
“He is actually one of the nicest people you’ll meet,” Dateline executive producer Liz Cole told BuzzFeed News. And although his Dateline scripts are almost poetically macabre, he is downright old-fashioned in casual conversation, saying things like “Gee,” “Oh, boy,” and “I’m just dandy!”
“He cares deeply about these stories and he really connects to people in the field,” Cole said. “There are people he interviews that he keeps in touch with years and years later. That is the one thing about the SNL [bit] that doesn’t quite align with Keith as a person.”
“Long short of it is, it’s not an act, and I don’t want it to be an act,” Morrison said about his interview style. “When someone says something outrageous, it’s better to see the natural reaction, I think.”
And Morrison’s persona hasn’t turned off potential participants. On the contrary, his fame has “probably made it easier to book” people for the show, said Corvo. “They know instantly who he is and how he handles stories, and that makes people eager to speak to him. It’s not something we planned on, but it’s something certainly that’s not a hindrance — it’s an asset.”
It’s an enviable position, and fellow correspondent Josh Mankiewicz joked at a Dateline panel at the inaugural CrimeCon in Indianapolis in June that Morrison always got the best assignments: “The whiter your hair is, the better your case is!”
But Morrison doesn’t just roll in and start asking questions. Oh, no. Dateline producers do exhaustive research, fact-checking, and preparation long before Morrison takes a seat opposite his interview subject.
Field producer Carol Gable laughed when she recalled her first time working with Morrison.
She had diligently compiled a dossier about the case and suggested questions for him to ask in the interviews, but he showed up empty-handed: no notes, no notebook, not even a pencil. Just a “teeny-tiny little overnight bag, and we’re going to be gone for five days. And I thought, Man, I can’t believe I did all that work, and you know, he’s got nothing,” Gable told BuzzFeed News. What she didn’t know then — but knows now, after working with Morrison for 22 years — is that he actually has a photographic memory. “Then, of course, he sits down at the interview and he has committed every little thing to memory. Everything. That’s the way it’s been ever since.”
That’s what makes Morrison a rare kind of correspondent, she said. “I give him tons of research and background and questions and he shows up in the interview and he knows all of it. He is one of the best-prepared correspondents I’ve ever worked with. No work you do for him is wasted.”
Morrison modestly credits “the remarkable compendium of enormously capable people” on his team for his successful interviews. “I’m able to walk into a situation and having met this person for the very first time, but I’ve been briefed — well-briefed — by the people I work with, so I can sit down and have an intimate conversation with a stranger,” Morrison said about the interviews, which can range from 30–40 minutes (though “rarely is an interview that brief,” he said) to three or four hours. “And by the end of the conversation, that person doesn’t feel like a stranger anymore.”
Not a lot fazes Keith Morrison, but he has been known to cry during an interview. “Actually, it sneaks up on you,” he said. “I have to confess it’s… Yes, it happens. But especially…young people telling these sad stories. In spite of myself, I realize: Uh-oh, your eyes are filling up with tears. Can anybody tell? It happens. Because these are very compelling stories and they’re so intense, and they matter so much to the people who are talking to us. You can’t help but get wrapped up in them.”
“It depends,” he said, hedging. “I have hugged…without a doubt. Only sometimes.” He finally concluded: “I have no rules on hugging.”
At the center of each of Dateline’s mysteries are the stories told by the family and friends of the murder victim. “These are important stories to tell,” Cole said, “not only because we shed light on how the criminal justice system works, but because we give voice to the victims’ families.” Countering The New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz’s criticism that true crime shows like Dateline “turn people’s private tragedies into public entertainment,” Cole said, “We approach them with great sensitivity. We have producers who have been doing it a long time and they have a lot of respect for the families and the people in the stories we cover, and we try to approach them in a way that gives them time to kind of really feel comfortable and ready to sit down and do a lengthy interview.”
But the participation of victims’ loved ones on Dateline is rarely limited to just one-on-one interviews. Often, there’s footage of them flipping through a photo album, visiting a gravesite, strolling through a park, or staring wistfully at the horizon from the seashore.
“Some people don’t want to do anything — they just want to sit in the chair, talk to you about the thing, and then go home,” Gable explained. “Other people are more interested in showing you what the story is about — they’re taking you to the scene, or driving you to an important place. And we don’t just choose these spots haphazardly. We try to find places the correspondent and key characters can go that really are pivotal to the story.”
It’s rare that someone will refuse to be interviewed for a story, but it does happen. “I think that’s where you have to make some value judgments,” Gable said. “There are some stories that they’re an incredibly key character. You need them. You just have to have them. There are not many stories that are like that. But I think philosophically if you can’t get the key character, then you probably decide you can’t do a story.”
Big, headline-grabbing stories are the exception, Corvo said. As an example, the field producer pointed to a recent two-hour Dateline episode about the serial killer Andrew Cunanan — which was, no doubt, capitalizing on the buzz surrounding FX’s upcoming installment of the American Crime Story miniseries, based on the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, Cunanan’s last victim, in 1997. For such episodes, field producers like Gable have to work around a key character’s refusal to participate.
“Of course that’s like five murders in one case. It’s a 20-year-old story, and there were important people along the way that we would have loved to have spoken with and they’re just over it — they don’t want to do it anymore. So you find other people that have the same experiences and the same responsibilities and get those people instead,” Gable said. “Stories have so many people involved that it might take you two other bookings to be able to fill that slot with a credible and appropriate person, and it can still can be done.”
To finish cobbling that episode together, producers used contemporaneous footage from Dateline and NBC News and Gable enlisted Versace’s friend Hal Rubenstein, “the first person to really show Gianni Versace South Beach” by driving him around Miami’s most famous neighborhood. “Really, he was the reason Versace fell in love with South Beach, so we put Keith and Hal in the car — in a convertible, so we could see them — and had them go down that strip and point out all the key places that Versace fell in love with. I think it really takes you back into the moment of the action,” Gable said. She emphasized that Dateline doesn’t “re-create” scenes, but illustrates them: “We don’t have actors or people that pretend to be doing something — but having someone take you somewhere and show you a key moment in the story I think is just great storytelling.”
EP Corvo told BuzzFeed News the show has dodged some criticism because of its more “traditional” and “straightforward” reporting under the NBC News banner. Moreover, while Serial and Making a Murderer have been accused of one-sided storytelling because the families of murder victims Hae Min Lee and Teresa Halbach declined to participate, most of Dateline’s stories are told “through the eyes of the friends and families of the victim,” Corvo said. “They cooperate because they have a story they want to tell, and we help them tell it. The causes and consequences of crime, more than the criminal act itself, is at the heart of Dateline.” Instead of making the accused killer the focus, Corvo said, “the search for justice for those left behind is often the driving force of our storytelling.”
Still, “it’s up to us to execute and tell that story in a way that reveals that in both an organic and natural way but also in a way that pays off,” Cole said.
Dateline fans expect a payoff, which means withholding some information from viewers early on in the episode to maximize the impact of a surprise twist or gotcha moment — “something you didn’t see coming at the beginning of the story that people really react to strongly online or social media,” Cole said. “People tend to look for that in a Dateline story — that there’s going to be something new coming that they didn’t see early on.”
Though Dateline doesn’t alter or omit facts, it does rely on a certain amount of staging.
The many jailhouse interviews for Dateline take place while the suspect is awaiting trial or after they are convicted, but the show doesn’t broadcast the location to viewers. Dateline’s amateur detectives have learned to study these sit-downs for “tells”: Is the defendant wearing a standard-issue tee or sweatshirt? Do they have a buzz cut or frizzy hair from cheap commissary shampoo? Is that a brick wall behind them? As Mankiewicz noted drily about prison uniforms, “If the person is wearing orange, that tends to mean something.”
Morrison admitted that producers will try to camouflage their surroundings to avoid spoilers: “We nudge it just a little bit sometimes. … You don’t want to know the ending before the ending happens, so we do try to minimize those prison-looking shots.” When a person has been acquitted, sometimes they shoot the interview in a nondescript locale.
“If we show someone walking their dog,” for example, Mankiewicz said, “you can deduce he’s not in custody.”
Whether a murder suspect has been found not guilty or is still proclaiming their innocence from prison, most are happy to play along with producers’ efforts to make their wardrobe seem ambiguous and maintain suspense about the verdict. Mankiewicz said one enthusiastic exoneree even showed up for his final interview in a plain white T-shirt resembling those worn by inmates, to help throw the audience off: “He said, ‘I’ve seen your show — I know what’s coming!’”
“We’re not trying to mislead people,” Morrison said with a laugh, but “for the duration we’d just like them to hold back their knowledge until the appropriate time in the story. But it’s not something you go out of your way to do very often, for sure.”
Mankiewicz regaled a rapt CrimeCon audience with one extreme exception. On one shoot, confronted with a strict prison policy and a very obvious institutional brick wall, his crew improvised a creative camouflage: On the morning of the shoot, he took a painting off the wall of his hotel room and took it to the prison, causing a few raised eyebrows as they passed their equipment through the security screening. “It was probably a crime against art, but they let it go through. I took off my blazer and gave it to him.” But Mankiewicz drew the line at his signature pocket square: “I’m not going to allow an inmate to wear my pocket square.”
In another case, Mankiewicz said, his producer loaned her own scarf and earrings to an inmate at a women’s prison.
“That part of what we do is fun, leading you down the road and around the corners, mimicking what the investigators do,” Mankiewicz said.
Turning over the pages of a case file. Reviewing the evidence. Driving to the crime scene. That’s all in a day’s work when detectives originally investigate their cases, but for Dateline, they play to the cameras. Gable pointed out that there is a huge difference between these scene shots and the cheesy reenactments that are de rigueur for pulpier true crime shows like Snapped. “If you’re asking them to go break down the door of an apartment one more time, then absolutely, that is a reenactment. We would not do that. But if they’re pulling out an existing file … they’re just showing you a body of work, or showing you evidence … that the public can see anytime if they wanted to go ask.”
Similarly, ride-alongs “need to have a reason,” Gable said. “And some police departments are great — they love to do that with you.” But not all police departments have the budget to spare their officers for a shoot, “so you have to think of other ways to get that material,” Gable said.
“Generally they trust us with the story,” Corvo said about law enforcement participation on Dateline. “They’re very cooperative.” Getting the second half of the law and order equation — the prosecuting attorneys — can be a little trickier: “Some of them have policies about not really going on television about their stories. But we’ve been on the air for 25 years, so they know our work,” he added. “We even keep up with prosecutors and police and defense lawyers who we’ve covered in the past.”
Also, because producers regularly attend hearings and professional conferences for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement, “they know a lot of our folks by name, and by reputation, and so we come in as a known entity. And they either want to play ball or they don’t.”
Cole also thinks Dateline earns the access because “they know that we work really hard to get it right, which helps them with our trust, and when we come back they’re willing to work with us.”
Morrison and his colleagues have a genuine respect for people in law enforcement. “They have a really difficult job,” Morrison said. “They get awakened at very inopportune times, their family events get blown up on a regular basis, it always seems that they’re called out in the middle of the night on the very day that they’re supposed to, or the night before, that they’re supposed to be at some important event, in their child’s life. … They say that they work for the dead, they work for the victims of crime. And they take these things so personally, so to heart, that it’s very encouraging to see that kind of behavior.”
Morrison acknowledges that some law enforcement interrogation tactics and overzealous prosecutors have resulted in the incarceration of innocent people. “Every once in a while, you’ll encounter a situation where somebody may have gotten a little too enthusiastic in an interview and produce a false confession or something like that,” he said. But those are rare, he insisted, and Dateline’s coverage of wrongful convictions could suggest they happen more frequently than they actually do. False convictions are unusual, Morrison said, and “therefore you tend to focus on more of them than you might otherwise.”
“And that’s the only troublesome part, because frequently prosecutors and detectives and others will work so hard to defend a conviction, even when the evidence is pretty clear it wasn’t a good conviction,” Morrison said. But he believes that’s changing, with justice reform task forces charged with reexamining previous convictions. “We’ve covered a few of those cases, and those can be quite remarkable too.”
When an older case makes headlines, the Dateline teams quickly dust off and supplement their own original coverage — as they did with Versace’s murder, Robert Durst’s arrest the weekend of The Jinx‘s finale, and the scrutiny on the Steven Avery case as a result of the 10-part Making a Murderer documentary on Netflix.
“We had already done three hours on that over the years,” Corvo said about Avery’s case, “before they ever did it.”
A Dateline episode might conclude with the arrest of a suspect, but it doesn’t necessarily end there: Follow-up episodes might cover trials, verdicts, appeals, or even an inmate’s release from prison. “We rely on producers and reporters to track the cases that they cover, that they know might develop,” Corvo said. “We like those stories because they’re actually not difficult. In a way, we already have a lot of material on them, we’re familiar with it, so we generally know that story is one that’s appealing to the audience. So we’re happy to develop the next two chapters or something like that.”
“It’s certainly an intriguing experience,” Morrison said. He recalled an unsettling prison interview with a death row inmate who was suspected of a number of other killings that remained unsolved. Dateline worked with families of the victims to finally learn the truth about what happened to their loved ones. “Here was a man who had committed a number of murders, and sitting in front of me, and discussing almost the way we’re having a discussion now, dispassionately and specifically, these truly horrific things that he did, and confessing to the murders which the family had suspected him of participating in,” Morrison said. As he shared details about the particular victims, the killer would fill in the missing pieces: “It was just the strangest thing, as if you’re having a conversation over the backyard fence with your neighbor about something mundane. And he’s talking about killing.”
“Strange things like that are what happen to you in this job,” Morrison said.
“Gee,” Morrison said. “I have no idea.”
He’s definitely not worried he’ll be murdered by his wife, even after covering so many cases involving domestic homicide.
“No, I don’t think she will do that,” he said. “No. Probably not.” But, he added with a dry chuckle, “we are able to joke with each other, a lot, about the various methods which she’d been able to do me in over the years.”
And he offered this sage advice: “If your spouse is mad at you, it’s probably best not to walk along the bluffs or near a sharp drop. Or if you’re drinking sweet tea, be sure you know the provenance of it.”
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