Anyone who has hung out with Dateline on social media knows we have a pretty strong social community. Not only do we share our stories with viewers, but viewers share their stories with us. Whether it’s to ask us to spread the word about a loved one who’s missing, to share a story about how an issue raised in a Dateline episode relates to their lives, or even just make a statement about their devotion to one Dateline correspondent over another, there is always an open forum where people can share, relate and even take sides.
Sometimes it goes further than that. Several stories we have aired, or are now working on, have come to us through our social community. And then there’s Donny Sparrow: artist, Dateline twitter follower and devotee of Keith Morrison.
As you will see on Friday’s episode, "After the Early Shift," Donny’s involvement with Dateline has transitioned from the second screen to the big screen.
We wanted to ask him a couple of questions about how it all happened from his perspective….
DATELINE: Tell us a bit about how you first interacted with the Dateline back in 2011.
DONNY: My first interaction with Dateline came about originally just by being a fan, and wanting to do a drawing of my favorite Dateline journalist, Keith Morrison. I had done a blog post about my favorite things about the show, and punctuated it with a drawing I did from a screen cap of Keith reacting to something an interviewee said. I didn't think anything would come of it, until Dateline began their "How do you Dateline?" campaign. I responded with a tweet, sharing a link to my blog and explaining that how *I* Dateline is by drawing pictures of Keith. Then Dateline was good enough to feature the drawing on their Facebook page, and even, briefly, on a broadcast, all of which was pretty thrilling. I thought that would be the end of it, until a few years later, on Keith's birthday, I once again shared a link to that drawing, which then got re-shared on Facebook, to a much bigger reaction than the previous posting (something like 12,000 likes!).
Editor’s Note: And then, of course, there was the inevitable and magnificent meme spawned by the original.
DATELINE: The infamous Keith sketch. How did that illustration play a role in how you “Dateline”?
DONNY: The main way the drawing changed my interaction with the show was that Keith himself responded to me directly, so it meant a lot to me that he saw my post, and knew the enjoyment we've gotten from his work. And for him to have responded so positively really felt great as well. The interaction also showed me that fans like myself really matter to Dateline, and that Dateline "gets" what we love about the show. And I got a lot of really kind responses from other fans of Dateline, so the experience really made me feel as though I am part of a community.
DATELINE: This week you aren’t only a Dateline viewer, you contributed some visuals to the report. How did that happen and what was that process like for you?
DONNY: Again, the original connection was from the Keith Morrison drawing--the blog post that keeps on giving! Because of the drawing going viral, the producers of the show were aware of my work. And this week's story had an interesting concept that the producers thought would benefit from hand-drawn visuals along with the usual photographic elements, so having seen my work, Sarah, one of the show's producers reached out to me. The timing worked, and the idea was perfect for my method of working, so I jumped at the chance to be a part of Dateline. The process went very smoothly as well, because Sarah, Fred, and the other producers were very specific about what they needed at the outset, plus I had a pretty good understanding of the format, and how my work might fit it from being a regular viewer. There were a few minor tweaks and revisions to the artwork along the way, but they were all explained in a way that made sense to me, and gave me deeper insight into the kind of story the team was trying to tell. So from a professional standpoint, it really was one of the smoother jobs I've done. And as a fan, well, it was a genuine thrill to get a peek behind the scenes and see how an episode comes together.
DATELINE: You obviously are a big fan of Keith Morrison; does it bother you that your first work with Dateline is for a Josh Mankiewicz story?
DONNY: Not at all! I really do enjoy all the reporters for Dateline, and as I mention in my blog post from way back in 2011, I am a huge fan of Josh. I think he probably does incredulous disbelief in his less-than-honest interview subjects better than any of the hosts, and it's very satisfying as a viewer to see, 'OK, this guy doesn't buy what they're saying any more than I do'.
DATELINE: Just about all prime time shows have social media accounts. What do viewers get out of not only watching Dateline, but interacting with us whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.?
DONNY: The main draw to the Dateline broadcast, for me, is the relentless pursuit of justice. It's always emotional, seeing people hurt or even losing their lives, and hearing from the loved ones that must carry on. But Dateline doesn't luridly report the details for shock value, instead focusing on the real human stories behind the headline crimes. While the nature of some of the incidents reported are of course upsetting, we also often see the perpetrators come to justice, and it's those episodes that I really enjoy--learning what detail or clue will prevent someone from getting away with it.
As for social media, I think we get a sense of community, and appreciate interacting with other fans, but it's also a way to share the excitement, outrage, compassion or whatever emotion we feel when we're viewing the real life stories Dateline features. For me, it's a place where someone other than my long-suffering wife can hear me spout off about tell-tale details like a witness’s lack of real tears in a crying jag, or a police investigator focusing too much on the too-obvious suspect. And usually, if I'm thinking or noticing something, people on Twitter or Facebook have noticed it too.
There you have it, a story behind the story.
And in April 2019, the story continued in real life! Keith and producer Shane Bishop were in Saskatoon for a future Dateline story when, lo and behold, Saskatoon resident Donny reached out and... this happened:
As Donny noted on a Facebook post about the encounter, "What a strange and wonderful ride this whole Dateline saga has been! It is wild to me that one piece of what was essentially fan art could bring me here."
It's been strange and wonderful for us, too, Donny. Until we meet again...