Documentaries That Ruined People’s Lives & Reputations


The Staircase 

In 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 after he said he found his wife unconscious the foot of the stairs. He told them she must have fell down because she consumed alcohol and valium. After an investigation, Peterson was arrested for murder because his wife had injuries on top of her head that was from a blunt object. He went to prison in 2003. After 8 years, Peterson was granted a new trial because a witness gave a misleading testimony. The new trial took place in 2017 and Peterson submitted an Alford plea, which meant he did not admit guilt but still pleaded guilty. This got his sentenced reduced to manslaughter and because he already served enough time in prison he was set free. 

Shortly after his conviction in 2003 was when the documentary about his case started filming called The Staircase. Peterson took part to try to prove his innocence. The documentary followed up with his case in 2013 and then again in 2017. The whole documentary was released in 2018, after Peterson already got out of prison. The reaction towards him was not good. The internet was buzzing with people accusing Peterson of murdering his wife. One of the producers of The Staircase was convinced that Peterson did it. The director of the documentary, Jean Xavier de-Lestrade was quoted saying “After 15 years following the case, and after spending weeks, months, and years with Michael Peterson and his family, I still can’t tell you I am convinced by something.”


Nanook of the North

In 1922, filmmaker Robert Flaherty, released a documentary called Nanook Of The North about an Inuit man and his family surviving in the wilderness in Northern Canada. The point of the film was to show people who were completely untouched by society. But after it was released it came out that Robert Flaherty exaggerated a lot of things. The family’s igloo was built as a film set. Flaherty directed how the family acted towards each other. In one scene it showed Nanook killing and dragging a walrus out of the water even though at the time the Inuit had not hunted walruses for years. He even went as far as showing Nanook a vinyl record which he thought was food and took a bite out of it. It turns out Nanook and his family knew what records were.


Making A Murderer 

Ken Kratz, a former District Attorney became somewhat infamous when he was one of the key figures in the Netflix documentary called Making a Murderer. The documentary is about how Kratz convicted Steven Avery and Branden Dassey for the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005. The documentary also highlights the crimes of his own Kratz took part in. They uncovered repeated text messages Kratz sent to a woman he was trying to sleep with, while he was prosecuting her boyfriend. Two women had to quit working for him due to constant sexual harassment. It got so bad the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended Kratz in 2014. They released a statement saying “This was exploitative behavior, harassing behavior, and a crass placement of his personal interests above those of his client, The state of Wisconsin.” Kratz had to pay for the costs of the disciplinary hearings which ended up bankrupting him. 


Surviving R. Kelly 

The docuseries Surviving R. Kelly caused a massive uproar when it came out in 2019. It’s about the personal life of the famous R&B singer R. Kelly, whose real name is Robert Kelly. It focuses on Kelly’s repeated behavior of preying upon underage girls. The series covered when Kelly married the singer Aaliyah who he had been mentoring in the music business. She was reportedly just 15 years old when they married but he claimed she was 18 years old. He allegedly even had papers falsified to go with his story. R. Kelly produced Aaliyah’s debut studio album that was titled Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number

There have been many girls who accused Kelly of having a sexual relationship with them while they were underage. After Surviving R. Kelley came out, the record company RCA cut all ties with Kelley. They quickly took his name off their website after a petition was started online that earned over 110,000 signatures. The hashtag “Mute R. Kelly” trended on twitter and hundreds of thousands of people voiced their disdain for Kelly on all social media. On February 22, 2019, Kelly was indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. In July 2019, he was arrested on 18 federal charges alleging sex crimes and obstruction of justice. R Kelly is currently in federal jail awaiting his hearings. 


The Case of: JonBenet Ramsay 

One of the most famous cases and most publicized involving a child murder was the case of JonBenet Ramsey. In December, 1996, the six year girl JonBenet Ramsey was reported missing. Eight hours later her body was found at the foot of the basement stairs with a ransom note. America became very involved as the media reported on the investigation constantly. No verdict was reached and the case is still open today. Though recently in 2019, a pedophile locked in prison allegedly admitted to killing her in a letter, but him being the real killer is still highly contested.  

In 2016, CBS released a docuseries called The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey for the 20th anniversary of the case. They re-interviewed all the police and detectives that worked on the original Ramsey case. The documentary put out a new theory that her older brother, Burke Ramsey, who was just nine years old at the time, bludgeoned his sister to death and his parents covered up for him. Burke and his family’s reputation took a major hit. They were all accused of having a hand in JonBenet’s death by thousands of people. Burke even made television appearances saying he didn’t kill his sister. Burke sued CBS for 750 million dollars. They ended up settling out of court.  


Living With Michael Jackson 

In the early 2000’s, the Journalist Martin Bashir got permission from the enormous pop star Micheal Jackson to follow him around for 8 months and shoot a documentary about his personal life. This was a huge opportunity because Michael Jackson mostly kept his personal life out of the public eye. The documentary shot footage at Jackson’s notorious Neverland Ranch where it was highly rumored Jackson had slept with young children in his bed. These allegations weren’t new when the documentary came out in 2003. In fact, Jackson had been denying them for years, even though his relationships and friendships with children was really weird to the public. Michael always said his friendships with the boys were strictly platonic and that he was still a child at heart. 

After Living With Michael Jackson was released, Jackson’s reputation took a nose dive. In the documentary there’s actual footage of Michael Jackson holding hands with an underage boy. Then the boy goes on to say that he sleeps in Michael Jackson’s room in his bed. Jackson then states that when a child is in his bed he sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag. 

After he saw the documentary, Jackson stated that he felt betrayed by Martin Bashir, that he distorted his behavior and that he would never harm any child. In that same year law enforcement raided Neverland Ranch and accused Jackson of child molestation. Two years later in 2005, Jackson was acquitted of all child molestation charges. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that his house got raided after that documentary came out. 



Perhaps one of the most damaging documentaries in recent history was Blackfish. Blackfish covered the life of a Killer Whale named Tilikum, that lived and performed at SeaWorld and who also killed three people. The documentary argued that holding a very social and intelligent animal in such a small space was detrimental to their life. The film claims the captive whales are under extreme stress and that’s why they lash out. On the other hand, SeaWorld says that their whales’s life spans are comparable to the life spans of the Killer Whales in the wild. The documentary had a big impact on the public because it showed the real footage of Tilikum’s capture from his family in the wild, and the real footage of Tilikum attacking his trainers. After the release of the documentary, SeaWorld lost an estimated 15.9 million dollars because of low attendance. They also suffered a massive public relations scandal. They claimed the film was inaccurate and the filmmakers had a clear agenda from the beginning. 

Peter O'Melia