Ryan Smith ’03 knows how it feels to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Twelve years ago, while vacationing in St. Maarten, Smith was brutally attacked, suffered brain damage, and was unable to speak for months.
Now, as a producer for CBS’s 48 Hours,Smith believes he’s better at his job because of it.
“I’m a crime victim, and that has enabled me to have a unique perspective on both sides. When people are going through one of the worst points of their lives, if not the worst, my personal experience has enabled me to be sensitive. It helps me understand, in some small way, what it must be like.
“Google is everywhere now. If someone knows I’m coming from CBS News, they’re going to Google me. I think that people may be a little more willing to share with me because they know what I’ve been through. But I’m also familiar with the criminal justice system.”
When Smith was a student at Wabash, he always thought he would end up working with the legal system. But back then, he thought that meant law school—not true-crime television.
“I was always so fascinated by the world around me. I always thought I was going to become a prosecutor or a defense attorney, but my last year, I began thinking about The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I had worked for The Bachelor, and I had always loved covering the Wabash community. The last day that Columbia was accepting applications, I decided to do it. And I got accepted.”
After graduate school, Smith took a job with David Letterman while in the political unit for CBS News. In 2005, he started at 48 Hours as a production associate.
“For someone who had been thinking of being an attorney, here was that way to make a difference and get to the bottom of things. Slowly but surely, I worked my way up. And I’m still here.”
Smith says it amazes him watchhow much the popularity of true-crime television has grown since he started at 48 Hours. It’s not just on the large broadcast networks anymore.
From HBO to Netflix, people are hooked. Just like Smith was 13 years ago—just like he still is.
“I’ve worked on stories where defendants have been seemingly railroaded. I’ve worked on stories where maybe police weren’t looking at the right person. It’s so interesting—the day-to-day, case-to-case. Nothing’s ever the same.
“You have your gut feelings, but you always are going to be surprised. The constant is that there’s always going to be something new, and you can never assume anything.”
But what about the hard days? There are many, considering the nature of the stories he covers—horrible tragedies, gruesome details, and heartbroken people.
“The difficult days are made up for in the relationships you make and the people who give their trust to us. They have important stories to tell—on both sides. As difficult as certain facts and the realities of what happened can be, the fact that you can meet these families, the accused, the attorneys, the people in law enforcement, the prosecutors who devote their lives to justice, I find it a privilege.
“For families, getting things right makes a difference. And that’s what 48 Hours does. That’s what keeps me motivated and inspired.”