Madeleine Baran on Finding the Way to the Truth

Madeleine Baran
Madeleine Baran

The In the Dark host discusses how she wades deep into disturbing cases of injustice with a steely eye on proof.

Madeleine Baran likes to say that she’s in the proving business. That’s exactly what she and her team at American Public Media do on her podcast In the Dark, while also illustrating the failings of the U.S. criminal justice system, one tragic human story at a time.

The first season of In the Dark investigated the case of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped in 1989 from the small Minnesota town of St. Joseph. The case went unsolved for 27 years, until Baran and her team uncovered a litany of basic errors, omissions, and wrongheaded decisions in the police investigation that hindered the apprehension of Wetterling’s killer.

The second season covered the story of Curtis Flowers, a black man accused of murdering four people in Winona, Mississippi, in 1996. He has been imprisoned for 22 years, protesting his innocence while District Attorney Doug Evans has tried him six times, despite a series of damning revelations uncovered by Baran and her producers. The podcast, which won the prestigious George Polk Award, was instrumental in drawing attention to the injustices in the case, and in late August the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out Flowers’ murder conviction. He remains in jail, waiting to see if he will be tried a seventh time in a lower court.

These stories are full of emotion, but Baran keeps a level head and a tenacious grip on reporting the facts. Here’s how she does it.

Spotify for Podcasters: There’s a strong sense of social justice in what you’re doing. Where does that come from?

Madeleine Baran: My parents instilled in me a very strong sense of ethics and of right and wrong. But even though people often say that In the Dark is advocacy journalism, I say it’s just journalism with very strong factual findings. Our opinion is irrelevant when the facts are as clear as they are. For me the point of doing investigative work is to get out of the role of commentary or opinion and to instead deal in data and facts. I know that powerful people do abuse their power with some regularity and I know that it takes a lot of time to get to the truth of what’s going on. We’ve gone months researching something to write one sentence. It’s one thing for a lot of people to suspect something is happening, but it’s a completely different thing to prove it.

In a lot of true crime podcasts, the central question is who did the crime. In the Dark is different, and in the case of Season 1, everyone found out who did it just before you planned to premiere the podcast.

Yes, a couple of days before, which was an amazing thing to happen for the family to know what happened to Jacob and for the public to know. It did require us to do some rewriting but it didn’t shift the focus of that season at all, because that season was about the cops and why they hadn’t solved the case. The question shifted to, “Why did it take nearly 27 years to solve this case?” We do not like mysteries as reporters. We want them solved. We ask a question and we want to be able to answer it. We want to report to the point of certainty.

There are moments during In the Dark where you take us into the process of what it takes to find the facts you need. I’m thinking particularly of the part of Season 2 where you go into a warehouse filled with dust and mold and go through mountains of documents.

Going into that room was a combination of things for us. On one hand, we walked in there and just groaned. And on the other hand we were saying: “You mean we get to look at a room full of documents and we can take as long as we want?” A lot of the time you’re fighting for months or even years to get certain documents. With that warehouse, it was almost an overwhelming amount of documents.

In Season 2, when you finally got to talk to prosecutor Doug Evans, you sound so measured and methodical as you’re talking to him. Didn’t you get nervous at all?

Honestly, no. I was really focused. To me the big thing is that I have this really limited amount of time. I do preparation for interviews and even role-play with someone on our team in preparation for them, so I go into them thinking, “What do I want to get out of this?” There might be just one opportunity to try to get information from someone. You have to stay in the role of a journalist. What came through in that Doug Evans interview was his demeanour and the way he approaches the world and the way he looks at this case and the lack of concern he has about problems with his evidence.

How do you maintain your composure in heated situations like this?

It was an intense encounter, but I wanted to ask as many questions as I could. I didn’t want a stereotypical confrontational interview where someone pounds on a door, the person comes out, the reporter says something obnoxious, the person says something equally obnoxious and says, “No comment,” and everyone feels righteous about what transpired. What I want is to get someone to talk to you so that they’ll reveal something to you. So you have to treat people with some level of decency to get that engagement. I don’t need to yell at someone.

After two seasons of In the Dark, what have you learned about the U.S. criminal justice system?

I think it’s clear the criminal justice system in the United States has major problems, but it’s not necessarily surprising to see what’s happening when you look at the history. At the same time it would be wrong to throw your hands in the air and say, “Well that’s just the way it is.” I do think it’s possible to have an impact in reporting and do something that’s worthwhile. I see our team’s work as part of a wider push to keep the criminal justice system accountable. Sometimes all you can do is document it.

—Barry Divola