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"I'm not going to lie, I didn't sleep very much the night before," she tells PEOPLE

By Christina Dugan
February 12, 2021 11:20 AM
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Natalie Morales
Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty

Natalie Morales has kickstarted her journey as an official Dateline correspondent.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the journalist, 48, opens up about her decision to join the Dateline team — and how she managed to keep her composure after coming face-to-face with a murderer for her first episode in the role.

"I feel like I'm joining Dateline at the perfect time," she says. "Dateline is on fire, people are obsessed [with true crime]. And this is the kind of the time to be in it. For me, being a part of this team that I've long admired, to work with some of the greatest storytellers there are in this genre, is fantastic."

In her first official episode, premiering Friday and titled "The Monster at Large," Morales investigates the story of a woman who was gruesomely murdered and found dead in her bathtub. Following a dark twist of events, Morales ends up sitting down with the killer for a one-on-one interview.

Natalie Morales
Credit: Eric Ray Davidson/NBC

"I'm not going to lie, I didn't sleep very much the night before," she confesses. "I was a little nervous. And I prepared as I would any interview, but with this one, having seen the photos, and knowing the details, and having interviewed so many of her friends, I went in there with a set of questions that they wanted answers to."

"You also have to be careful when you're doing this too, because I don't want to give them a platform, either," she continues. "So it's not like we're giving him a license to just speak his mind ... and clear his conscience. We have to balance these things out with their friends, and her surviving family are going to watch this and it's going to be painful. So knowing that, it's a very delicate act."

Natalie Morales
The Dateline team
| Credit: Michael Loccisano/NBC

While Morales is no stranger to storytelling, the Today show anchor and former Access Hollywood host says she's looking forward to exploring this particular genre.

"With the Today show, and with NBC Nightly News, you can really go about two minutes into a story and then you're done," she says. "After a week, people are done with the story or they don't have the attention span we used to. And I think this is refreshing in that it gives me an opportunity to really do a deep dive into storytelling, and really be able to kind of develop the characters and let things breathe a little bit"

"I've always been a true crime fan," she adds. "I think that everybody is fascinated by it as well, because that's what all shows tell."

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But as the mom of two admits, with her new adventure come challenges.

"There is nothing more emotionally disturbing as a parent than when you're talking about another parent having lost their child," says Morales, who shares sons Luke, 12, and Joseph, 17, with husband Joe Rhodes. "You can't feel what they're feeling, but just imagining their tremendous sense of loss — I think you just know at the end of the day, you owe it to your family to come home ... and be present as much as you can. But it is hard. I can't lie. There are nights that I don't sleep well all the time because I'm thinking about families, or people that I've talked to over the years, who've lost children or loved ones."

Despite the hardships, Morales is looking forward to this next chapter with her new team, which includes anchor Lester Holt and fellow correspondents Andrea Canning, Josh Mankiewicz, Keith Morrison and Dennis Murphy.

"Everyone has their own specific way of asking the questions," Morales says of her colleagues. "I think Andrea goes by the Queen. Dennis is sort of the straightforward [one] — you can't get anything past him. Josh has got that twisted, kind of dry, satire sense of humor when he asks his questions, and Keith is by far the greatest voice in the business."

Morales' first official episode of Dateline premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.