The tables turned Tuesday night when Chris Hansen shifted from interviewer to subject in McGuinn 121. Hansen is an investigative journalist who used to host NBC’s Dateline and now stars in his own show, Killer Instinct with Chris Hansen.
Before a crowd of students, communication professor Lindsay Hogan asked Hansen what it takes to be a successful journalist, and an Emmy-award winning one at that.
“It’s about being curious … listening into someone’s mind and helping them tell their side of the story,” he said. “Get inside their head.”
The talk, which was hosted by Boston College’s communication department, provided audience members with a firsthand account of the emotional challenges, personal sacrifices, and colorful characters that accompanied Hansen’s career in journalism.
From the time he was a teenager, Hansen had the curious mindset of a reporter. In 1975, union leader Jimmy Hoffa disappeared near Hansen’s Michigan home. Even at 16, Hansen wanted in on the case and was eager to know what happened to Hoffa.
“I got bit by the bug pretty early,” Hansen said.
After enrolling at Michigan State University, Hansen joined the school’s radio station, searching for stories on and off campus.
Later, he had the opportunity to cover the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. There, Hansen asked for some words of advice from veteran reporters who were also covering the event.
“Get some comfortable shoes, ’cause you’re gonna spend a lot of time on your feet,” he was told.
Post-graduation, Hansen did just that. First, he was hired as a reporter for a local Action News broadcast, calling in articles from a payphone as he watched daily events unfold at the courthouse downtown. He traveled across the state, and later the country, following stories to their sources. Eventually, Hansen worked his way into primetime as a reporter for Dateline on NBC.
“Don’t let anybody tell you there’s anything you can’t do,” he said.
Over 30 years later, Hansen’s career continues to evolve. Killer Instinct, which airs on the ID: Investigation Discovery Channel, centers on Hansen’s quest to flesh out the details of notorious murders. Cops want to know who the culprit is, but Hansen wants to know why that person committed the crime.
Students watched a clip from the latest episode of Killer Instinct, in which Hansen engages with police officers, inquiring about the brutal 2007 murder of Jim Madonna. Madonna was a beloved father and husband slain in his hometown of Taunton, Mass. Officer Michael Chervan, who accompanied Hansen to the event, was the lead detective on the case, and spoke with Hansen in McGuinn.
But before Chervan spoke Tuesday evening, he took the proper precautions to ensure sensitivity to a murder case.
“Is anyone here from Taunton, or do any of you know the Madonna family?” he asked the audience.
He paused, considering that the case or its details may trigger upsetting memories for audience members familiar with them. With no one in the audience identifying as a friend of the family, he continued.
Chervan explained how his work on the Madonna case became a topic for an episode of Killer Instinct.
The show’s producers tracked him down and asked if he was interested in discussing the homicide. First, Chervan needed several permissions from the district attorney’s office, Bridgewater Police, and other key players in the investigation. Chervan and the show’s team also needed the Madonna family’s consent.
“Our first priority is always the family,” Chervan said, as Hansen nodded in agreement.
With that sentiment, Chervan and Hansen captured the harsh reality of investigative reporting— the gaping holes left behind by the victims in the lives of children, spouses, and parents.
“Being an investigative journalist, especially when covering homicides, is like being an anesthesiologist, hovering people between life and death,” he said.
Featured Image by Isabelle Lumb / Heights Staff