Marit Higraff Talks Journalism, Storytelling, and “Death in Ice Valley”

Death in Ice Valley is a BBC true crime podcast about a mysterious body found in Bergen, Norway, known s the Isdal Woman, in the 1970s. The case has never properly been solved, but Death in Ice Valley aims to help solve the mystery of who she was by using modern technologies–as well as by connecting the story to a larger audience through podcasting. Death in Ice Valley doesn’t just want you to listen–though with its gorgeous sound design and intriguing story, it makes listening a riveting joy–it wants you to help solve this mystery, too.

I was able to ask some questions of Death in Ice Valley host and NRK journalist Marit Higraff about Death in Ice Valley, journalism, storytelling, and how the two intersect.

First, could you please explain Death in Ice Valley for readers who haven’t started listening yet?

Death in Ice Valley is a story about an unidentified body of a woman found dead in the remote valley of Isdalen outside the Norwegian city Bergen. As the police in 1970 investigated the case, they were never able to find out who the woman was, or what her story was. As podcast producers, we follow the story as it happened back then, but the production also involves modern science in an attempt to get closer to answers to all the riddles in this mysterious case.

What was the inspiration for starting Death in Ice Valley? Why specifically the case of the Isdal Woman?

As an investigative journalist all the mysteries and riddles in this unsolved case made for an unprecedented opportunity to tell a story. At the same time, we had expectations to be able to actually bring new clues, answers and information. With modern technology, looking at the case both as journalists and investigators, we saw possibilities we could not refuse. After our investigative unit at the NRK had been looking at the case for a year, the BBC purposed a collaboration in order to make a podcast and bring the case out to the world.

Comparisons have been made between Death in Ice Valley and Serial; the two focus on a case that hasn’t been touched in some time, trying to piece new information together to help solve it properly. Other than the case itself, how would you say the two podcasts are different?

For us it has been important to combine investigative journalism with a high-quality listening experience. By taking the audience with us out in the field, we get a better product, hopefully engage the listener in a complex story, and also get the opportunity to revisit places and people to find new clues and answers.

Death in Ice Valley takes a unique spin by asking listeners to send in any leads and information they may have. What was the decision-making process like when choosing to open up the investigation to leads from listeners?

At the NRK, we had already been looking at the case for some time. By the time we started the collaboration with the BBC we already knew the woman was a foreigner. Therefore, it was important for us to get the word out to a larger audience. By engaging the listeners actively, we managed to get their help in tracing down new clues and spreading the word.

Investigative journalism in podcasting feels like it’s becoming more and more narrative, sometimes leaning on tactics from creative nonfiction to help personalize the story: Serial did this with Sarah Koenig, and more recently, Caliphate with Rukmini Callimachi. Death in Ice Valley even sometimes feels produced like an audio drama, putting the listener right into the scene (though obviously here it’s nonfiction). Why do you think this trend is gaining prominence?

We as journalists telling stories from the real world have to compete with fiction-dramas on Netflix and other global platforms. Then we have to combine the best from both worlds, but always stay on the right side in relation to ethics and the integrity of fact-based journalism.

Do you think the trend is specific to podcasting, or to journalism as a whole?

Journalism as a whole has to adapt constantly. Trends like these appear in podcasting or documentary filmmaking, and other trends might appear, for instance in online presentation. New storytelling techniques will always be developed in the combination of investigative journalism, creative tools and platform opportunities.

What do you will happen with the podcast if you don’t solve the case?

The story in itself has such qualities that it deserves to be told to a larger audience. Our intention was to take the listeners with us, giving answers to riddles and mysterious clues.

Our hope is of course to solve the case, and give answers to the possible relatives out there. Getting the story out gives every listener a good product, and it might even end up reaching the right person who knows something.

What about if you do?

If the case is solved the journalistic endeavor will get a completely new perspective. Then we will have the possibility to give an unknown woman back her name, dignity and maybe justice if she was killed. That has been an underlying motivation for us when putting in long workhours in this project.

What has Death in Ice Valley, if anything, taught you about investigative journalism?

Work on Death in Ice Valley has given us many new experiences working with old source material. Everything from deciphering old case documents to seeing events in a cold war perspective to talking with witnesses about events that took place almost 50 years ago. Also as Norwegian journalists, we have learned a lot from taking the story across borders. Both following leads in other countries, and the close and successful collaboration with the BBC, have given us a lot of valuable knowledge.

And finally, something I ask all podcasters: what are you listening to right now?

Here in Norway, the podcast scene is a mix of both Norwegian, US and other podcasts. The last podcast series in my player was an NRK production called The Entire Story (Norwegian “Hele historien”). A series revisiting major events in Norway that affected the entire society. By going back to central locations and people who were in the midst of the events, they tell well-known stories in new ways.

You can find Death in Ice Valley on any podcatcher or on their website.

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