Television Critic Jade Matlock explores the power of Netflix documentaries as a way to shape public opinion

Second year English student. Perpetually confused and constantly curious.
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With the release of The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez being released on 26th February, there has been no shortage of opinions about the harrowing details referred to in the docuseries.

What seems to strike people the most about this series is that everything depicted could have been prevented. Had the American Child Protective System removed Gabriel from the family home, some claim he may still be alive today. This seems to be the opinion of celebrities like Cardi B who tweeted her distress to her fanbase ‘The system failed that lil boy sooo bad. Im [sic] disgusted.’

While the outcry over the treatment of Gabriel Fernandez has been heart-wrenching, this is not Netflix’s first foray into documentaries that have caused a public stir, it is almost guaranteed that it won’t be the last.

Petition for the White House to pardon Avery and Dassey amassed 536,714 signatures

The most notable instance of Netflix shifting public opinion comes in the form of Making a Murderer. Released in 2015, the ‘did they, or didn’t they?’ nature of the Steven Avery and Brendon Dassey case is one that still divides audiences today. The evidence provided by the docuseries acts as just enough to tempt viewers with the idea that perhaps the pair were innocent; every piece of evidence provided by the authorities seems to be challenged or counteracted in some way. We see Steven Avery being wrongly charged with violent crimes in his youth, for which he served 18 years in prison. The end of the series leaves viewers questioning institutions (such as the District Attorney’s office and Law Enforcement) previously deemed to be fighting for justice. Familiar faces such as Alec Baldwin, Ricky Gervais and Mandy Moore weighed in on the docuseries’ findings and a petition for the White House to pardon Avery and Dassey amassed 536,714 signatures after the show ended. With the release of the second season in 2018 covering Dassey’s appeals process, the public remains invested and divided by the series – it establishes itself as one of the first of Netflix’s documentaries to drastically change the opinions of the public.

Amanda Knox sought to provide watchers with enough information to make an educated assumption

Amanda Knox, released in 2016, functions as another Netflix documentary that helped to shape the public opinion on a controversial case. It follows the murder of Meredith Kercher and Knox’s conviction and acquittal for the crime; the evidence is displayed from both sides, featuring interviews from Knox herself and the Italian police force. The previous public opinion surrounding the Knox case was overwhelmingly negative, with both the tabloid media general public wasting no time in professing Knox’s guilt in the case – Amanda Knox sought to provide watchers with enough information to make an educated assumption for themselves. Opinions on the case are now seemingly less so clear cut, forcing the public to look at the case in terms of presented fact rather than tabloid scrutiny. The power of explorative documentaries to shift the views of individuals so easily seems to showcase the power of this particular format of entertainment.

The documentary series has shone a light on institutional failings

It would appear that 2020’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is set to have a similar effect on the public. The subject matter is certainly harrowing, seemingly showcasing the failure of multiple institutions in preventing the death of Californian eight-year-old; it is one of the most distressing watches of 2020 so far, but takes on the task of demonstrating to the public what happens when a child slips through the cracks of Child Protection Services. Cardi B, producer of The Ellen Show Andy Lassner and boxer Devin Haney have all been vocal about the impact of the documentary, with similar comments and frustrations being voiced by the public on social media. The documentary series has shone a light on institutional failings and changed the public opinion on a government service that was once thought to protect vulnerable children.

The impact of Netflix’s true crime documentaries on the public cannot be overstated. The presentation of facts on such uncomfortable and distressing topics carry with them an unparalleled level of emotion, with documentaries such as The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez and its international reaction proving exactly why this kind of television is needed. Bringing awareness to these issues in this way could not be more effective in reaching a wider audience of individuals. 

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