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Host AMAsAMA with Amber Hunt, Host of Accused
AMAs >  Amber Hunt

Amber Hunt

show Accused
When November 22 2019 @ 11:30AM (EST)

Amber Hunt is part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at The Cincinnati Enquirer, where she works as reporter and host of the podcast “Accused,” an award-winning true crime serial whose third season is under way. Each season, Accused adopts a cold case to reinvestigate, finding and exploring investigative paths that original detectives failed to pursue, for one reason or another.

In season 1, Hunt and her reporting partner, Amanda Rossmann, reinvestigated the 1978 stabbing death of Elizabeth Andes, a 23- year-old recent college graduate whose boyfriend found her in the apartment they shared. Despite the boyfriend being acquitted and found not liable for the death by two separate juries, police and prosecutors refused to look at anyone else as potentially culpable for the crime. Hunt and Rossmann found three people who warranted further investigation. Season 2 focused on the 1987 stabbing death of Retha Welch. A man convicted in that case was ultimately released after 23 years when DNA testing failed to tie him to the crime scene. In Season 3, Hunt and Rossmann are tackling their most complicated case to date: The mysterious 1984 death of a man working inside a uranium processing plant. Police quickly ruled his death a suicide, but the duo’s year-long investigation suggests that decision was made in haste. Accused has been featured in O magazine, The Daily Beast, Wired magazine, and on RollingStone.com, among others. It also was named one of the top podcasts of 2016 by Esquire, iTunes and Mental Floss.

Amber’s written six books, including the New York Times bestseller “The Kennedy Wives,” and is a past Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where her studies focused on forensics and juvenile justice. She is a past recipient of the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting and has taught multimedia journalism at the University of Cincinnati. Amber has also appeared on multiple crime-focused TV Shows, including NBC’s Dateline and A&E’s Crime Stories. She lives in Ohio with her artist husband and too-smart-for-his-own-good kindergartener.

Twitter | Patreon | Personal Website

Questions now closed.

11 Questions
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Tom Slack Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi Amber, it’s a privilege to have you on. There’s so much to unpack with what you do, but I’d love to start with one around your research process. It’s clearly your strong point, but can you go into more detail about what that process looks like with a brand new case or topic?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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Sure thing! And thanks for the welcome. We keep an Excel sheet of potential cases, and we include in that a list of pros (lots of people willing to talk, for example) and cons (e.g. might be a random killing, which makes it difficult to investigate). For S3, we went down three different paths, meaning we started research on three cases, and two fell through, leaving us with a strong third case, which we pursued. Every time I start a new case, I hate myself and think there’s no way I’m ever going to get it done, but I start slowly reading the available documents and starting what I call the “backbone interviews” and, bit by bit, the pieces start coming into focus. It’s just slow, methodical work to get to the point where I feel ready to write.

Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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Because there’s a lull in questioning, I’ll add something here for any new journalists/podcasters, just in case it’s helpful: For me, it’s important to start organizing the story as early as possible. I’m careful not to do it before I’ve done any research (I don’t want to decide how the story should unfold before I know anything about the story) but as soon as I’ve got a grasp on things, I jot down chapter heads on separate sheets of paper and pin them to my war room wall. The sheets say things like: Overview, with a list of basic facts and a couple of interview subjects’ names to go in that episode. Another might say: Alternate theories, with a list of those and, again, some of the voices I expect to include in that episode. I also color code the transcripts/other documents to help me sift through the info faster on the back end. If I find an interesting bit about the investigation, I’ll highlight that yellow. An interesting bit about the facts of the actual murder might be orange. Details about the victim’s personality might be blue. Then I make a point to understand which color is going to be the predominant one in each of the episodes, while also making sure that every episode generally has a little bit of every color. I find that helps me stay organized, it helps me keep in mind the underlying issues I’m trying to convey, it helps me keep tabs on what information is where so I’m only repetitive when it’s intentional and also it ensures that I’m revealing something new until the very end.

Tash Kiely Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi Amber, has the research ever led you astray? What do you do to try avoid that?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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Absolutely. When we do our research, we sometimes talk to people who are certain about something, and it eventually turns out that they’re well intentioned but wrong. Once we thought we found photographic evidence of one witness’s story, but what we thought was a corroborating bottle of wine turned out to be a homemade lamp made from a wine bottle that sat on the bedstand constantly. How we safeguard is that we always remember WE MIGHT BE WRONG. I always play devil’s advocate when it comes to our theories. Something might not add up, but there could be a completely reasonable explanation for it.

Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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OH! Thought of another led-astray moment from season 3, which launches Nov. 26 on Patreon and Dec. 3 everywhere else.

I was trying to find an ex-wife of someone whose story doesn’t quite add up but whom police never questioned. I’d already left messages with the guy but he wasn’t responding, and I knew he’d been married at the time the death happened, so I reached out to her. It was an uncommon name, and to verify that I was talking to the right person, I said, “And your son goes by Mike, right?” She said, yep, son is Mike. So we’re conversing and I’m learning things that are making my jaw drop. She and her ex divorced because he was violent toward her, he spent time in prison for assault with a deadly weapon, all of these things that just blew my mind knowing that his story about a man’s death wasn’t totally truthful.

Long story short (too late), it took a couple of days but suddenly, a couple of confusing text messages prompted me to ask a few more questions, and it turned out that the woman I was talking to had been married to a man by the same uncommon name as the one I sought but who was born two years earlier. They also had a son named Mike. It was the wrong guy altogether.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to me that we don’t publish while we’re doing the reporting. Sometimes you think you’ve got something and you just don’t. You have to verify, verify, verify, and that can’t be done in a split second. It takes time.

Susanne Smailes Staff asked this question 4 months ago

How long does it take to put together a new season of the show?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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We’ve consistently needed a year to report things out, write the episodes and record/polish them. About 9 months of that is solid reporting and interviewing. The last three still include more reporting (we report until the last minute; it’s inevitable with this type of thing) but I’m also writing scripts, recording them, hating them, redoing them, etc.

Wendy Serrino Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hiya Amber, how often do you get to write and do you have a ritual? I am trying to write more but I find it hard to fold it into my lifestyle sometimes. Thanks!

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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As in, personal writing? I honestly don’t do as much of that as some people might because I always seem to turn my side projects into jobs. If I’m writing, it tends to be for a project that has a deadline, and, as a paper weight on my desk says, “The ultimate inspiration is the deadline.” How much I write goes in phases depending on said deadlines. I will say, though, that writing for me is 1,000% harder when I don’t feel I’ve fully reported things out, and then once I’m ready to write, I write pretty quickly. I can hammer out 10,000 words for a book in a long weekend or write a 6,000-word podcast episode in a couple of days if I’m ready with the reporting.

Sean Phillips Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi Amber what are the biggest stresses of your work and what do you do to deal with them?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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Journalism in general makes me sick with worry sometimes. I’m brutal on myself when I make mistakes. Aside from that, though, it’s frustrating when I’ve worked a year on a project and managers who paid me no mind all year and couldn’t tell you the first thing about how to successfully produce a podcast suddenly have a million ideas and directions for me. I’m starting to really hate that. How I’m dealing with it is by trying to carefully walk a line between exuding confidence — we’ve done well on our own, after all — without getting labeled a prima donna.

Mauricio Bara Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Any tips on interviewing would be great

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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I walk in with the idea that we’re just having a conversation. If there’s a crucial question that I can’t forget, I might jot that down to ensure I don’t forget to ask it, but I generally don’t write down questions beforehand. I joke with the people, I’m honest about where I’m coming from, I swear (and usually apologize for swearing, but I’ve yet to do it and have it do anything but put people at ease). I’m just myself. If I don’t know something, I say so. “Walk me through this because I haven’t written about that before.” Some journalists I’ve worked with walk in like they know everything, and I don’t understand that in the slightest. Your sources *love* being experts in their arenas. Let them be experts. Hell, sometimes I act like I know less than I do just so they’ll explain to me how they see it. It’s occasionally taught me I had a misconception that I didn’t know about. Occasionally, it’s shown me my source is an idiot. It’s always worthwhile to let other people speak so you can just listen.

Tash Kiely Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Hi Amber, thanks for coming on! Do you think you could do the podcast without the resources and support offered by the newspaper? I guess I’m asking if you think indie podcasters could achieve something similar or if you really need the resources to do it well.

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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It honestly would be hard to do quite what we do. My newspaper foots the bill for my salary (eating is fun), my work equipment and my travel. Now, they earn way more than that, from what I understand, back in ad sales, and at this point, I’d theoretically be making a lot more if I owned Accused and ran the thing myself, but reaching this point would’ve been harder because I wouldn’t have had resources for that first season. Still, passion projects are worthwhile, too, and they sometimes pay off well. If it’s something you’re passionate about and have the time to do right, it’d be worth trying. Our goal, after all, was never to make money. It was to do good journalism. That’s still my goal, and because I’m removed from the business side of things, I don’t ever have to be weighed down by “will this sell”-type questions. I’d hate to lose the arrangement I have. I get to be in it completely for the cases, while also getting to eat.

Geoff Roly Staff asked this question 4 months ago

There are a lot of new podcasts in true crime who don’t do anywhere near enough research (some even plagiarise) and just seem to be riding the wave of the genre. What’s your take on this, given how much effort you put into crafting such high-quality, well-researched stuff?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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You know, this is interesting. I don’t hate on the chit-chatty podcasts that don’t do original research, or do very little of it. (Not a fan of the plagiarizing, to be clear, but that’s a whole separate issue.) Not everyone can do what we do, and some of those podcasts come out weekly. I couldn’t do that. It’s just not in my DNA to accept someone else’s legwork as thorough or accurate, so I’d inevitably have to verify things before I let them come out of my mouth. So they’re fine by me, but they’re not at all in the same category as what I do or In The Dark does. Without our work, important information and even evidence would not be uncovered. This takes time, money, heart and, toward the end of the project (like right now), some occasional I-haven’t-slept-in-weeks tears. 🙂 Now, Amanda and I started a Patreon (shameless plug: http://www.patreon.com/accused) and we decided that to stay in touch with listeners, we should have an off-shoot podcast that’s a shorter turnaround. That podcast’s called -30-, and I’m really excited about it because it’ll be the quicker-turn stories BUT we’re not just ripping and reading. I’m researching the case and interviewing the reporters who covered it. So I think by this time next year, I’ll have a good sense of what it takes to do both the shorter turn and the longer. I guarantee you, though, that I’ll always prefer the longer. What we do with Accused means an enormous amount to us and to the people involved in the case.

Kelvin Tse Staff asked this question 4 months ago

what was most interesting to you when researching the Kennedy wives book? Seems like a very fasinating topic!

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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I loved researching that book! Thanks for asking. I was not a Kennedy fanatic by any stretch when I started it, though I did know a fair bit about JFK himself. I think I was most surprised by Joan Kennedy, the trials she faced, and how much sense she made to me after understanding what she’d been through. I even came to understand Teddy because when you look at his behavior through the prism of trauma, you realize that he was making rash, selfish decisions likely in part because of a huge mortality hangup that had to come naturally after losing two brothers and nearly dying in a plane crash. I guess the real takeaway for me was that people are people, period, and no one’s all good or all bad. Most people, though, make sense when you know them well enough.

Also, I had a newborn when I did the bulk of the research and writing of that book, and I learned a bit of what I didn’t want to do. Rosemary raised extraordinary men, but a lot of their flaws looked to me like they could’ve come from a lack of affection. I hug the shit out of my son, while also telling him to be strong and fight for what he wants. I think withholding love and affection in hopes of making a kid stronger is just backward.

Rebecca Williams Staff asked this question 4 months ago

Amber – Outside of crime what pods do you listen to?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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I try like hell NOT to listen to much crime in my off time because I need to keep sane. Really, this can be a dark world I live in, and it took me a long time to figure out that I need breaks from the ugliness and that’s OK. So I do probably still consume more true crime than the average person, but maybe not as much as some might think.

I listen to Up First by NPR every damn day. Not sure if that’ll continue after national politics settles back down, but that’s been my ritual every morning for the past couple of years. I also like the NPR Politics podcast and Pod Save America. My absolute favorite escapism is How Did This Get Made. My husband and I watch a stupid number of bad movies and keep up with the show. It’s a good release for me. I also love Oh No! with Ross & Carrie. Embedded is amazing, I think. Crime Writers On is fun, though I often stockpile them for road trips so I can listen at once after I’ve listened/watched whatever I’m going to make time for. (They review crime-related podcasts and TV shows and can give spoilers.) There are many great ones out there, and I dabble in a lot more, but these are my regulars.

Joy Lin Staff asked this question 4 months ago

What’s the best/worst thign about being a journalist in this day and age?

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Amber Hunt replied 4 months ago

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The best thing is knowing how important the work is. I mean, every day, people who are paying attention should be reminded how crucial it is to have watchdogs in society. Imagine what kind of nightmare world we’d live in if no one shed light on the shady stuff some people opt to do. The toughest thing is watching the industry struggle so much and yet announce just about every year that they’ve figured everything out. For a while, we were told to focus on clicks because all that would matter is digital traction. Then we were told we all had to learn video because that’s how media would make their money. Now we’re being asked to hawk actual newspaper subscriptions, which is weird. (I encourage everyone to subscribe to their local paper, but it’s weird when your boss has contests for which reporter gets the most people to sign up for subscriptions, which is something that’s started happening in the past six months.) With the work I do with Accused, I’m becoming more and more painfully aware of just how sure some people are of themselves despite being either idiots or incompetent. I’d love if the focus were just, now and forever, on being good, ethical journalists, period. I don’t give a shit how boring an editor thinks a story is. I’ll do my best to write it in a way that grabs people, but if it’s important, it should be covered. I don’t like weighing public opinion/popularity in my decision-making process when it comes to news.

Side note: With Accused, thanks to the awesome listeners, I get to focus on just that. I can’t imagine another job right now. Yes, we get downloads, but that has never been a concern of mine beyond wanting 27,000 because that was, at the time, the most I’d seen a newspaper-produced podcast had gotten. I wanted to reach that so my bosses would feel the enormous investment they’d made was worthwhile, but it was never about ads or millions of downloads or anything of the sort. My boss gave me the mandate to do good journalism, and I’ve been lucky that that’s remained my focus ever since.

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