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 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.
How does Morrison feel about his unexpected celebrity — and how has it affected his Dateline interviews?
Bill Hader impersonates Morrison on SNL.
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.
What actually happens when Keith Morrison sits down for a Dateline interview?
Morrison interviews a murder suspect in "Return to Game Night" (Jan. 22).
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.”
Does Morrison ever crack?
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.”
Why do victims’ loved ones agree to tell Dateline about the worst day of their life?
Morrison interviews members of murder victim Michele Harris's family in "The House on the Lake" (December 2016).
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.”
What happens if someone refuses to participate in a story?
Morrison and Hal Rubenstein retrace Versace's footsteps in "The Death of Gianni Versace" (April 2017).
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.”
How has Dateline avoided the backlash against true crime productions like Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx?
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.
How does Dateline maintain suspense and keep the audience guessing?
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.”
Correspondent Josh Mankiewicz and a sampling of his signature pocket squares.