November 16, 2022
(NEW YORK) — Unregulated, and sometimes unhinged, the true crime genre wrestles with its identity. Is it journalism? Is it entertainment? Is it both?
There can be a bright side to the public’s interest in true crime. This is why the motivating ethics of the storyteller are important. Discernment is necessary when evaluating this thrilling category of reporting.
In this podcast, The Click reporters Sarah Ashley, Kyra Breslin, and John Verner discuss ethical issues in the genre, including the exploitation of victims, coverage skewing toward both white victims and perpetrators, as well as who profits financially. Ashley is reporting from Chicago, Breslin from New York, and Verner from Atlanta.
Kyra Breslin: True crime is everywhere. Popularized by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary film “The Thin Blue Line,” true crime has since become one of the fastest-growing entertainment genres across all platforms. Audiences are addicted, and the internet has enabled them to become armchair investigators. NPR’s podcast “Serial” is responsible for overturning a murder conviction, but this phenomenon also blurs the line for victims and audiences on what is real and what is a story. When does a true crime become exploitation?
Sarah Ashley: The media covers crimes against white victims — especially white women — more urgently and sympathetically than crimes against non-white victims. White perpetrators are even presented more thoughtfully than non-white suspects.
John Verner: Beyond who is given attention and coverage, it’s worth asking who stands to gain from true crime media? Does money ever go to the victims, their families, or resources that could help bring justice? Do profit margins prevail over personal ethics?
Breslin: The true crime genre remains unregulated, which is probably the biggest threat to how victims and their families are represented. True crime often seeks to dramatize an event for a heightened, emotional narrative, which can alter our perception of the facts of the case and the victim.
True crime stories can have a significant positive impact for the victim and their case, but this largely depends on the intention of the storyteller and their style. Is the story being told because the victim’s family needs help with awareness or bringing justice? Is it a 40-year-old case that has gone cold? Does the storyteller have a personal relationship with the victim, investigators, or the case at hand and genuinely want to help? More than anything, will the storyteller report judiciously and adhere to journalistic principles, or will the content interfere or infringe on an ongoing open investigation? I use the term storyteller because not everyone producing content is a journalist investigating.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many true-crime fanatics have created their own series with one-off episodes where details are hastily brushed over. Often, the victim is reduced to a character with a salacious narrative. Podcast hosts insert bad jokes and commentary, and it becomes clear that the decision to tell the story is in the self-interest of the storyteller- especially when advertising comes into play. The victim and their story becomes an instrument.
The best-case scenario for any true-crime content is when the victim and their family participates. That means they have control over the narrative. The next best scenario is when the victim and their family are aware and supportive, whether or not they participate. The worst-case scenario, which opens the floodgates for victims and their stories to be exploited, is when there is no participation from the victim, their families, or someone related to the case. This is when audiences tend to forget that these are real people who have dealt with tragedy and the story becomes more for entertainment value.
Ashley: Late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome” in 2004 to describe a disparity in media coverage. In 2016, a Northwestern University study found that white women make up about 30% of the U.S. population, yet 50% of missing persons coverage goes to them. In contrast, in 2020 Black women made up about 15% of the U.S. population but accounted for over a third of all missing women that year. A higher proportion of Black and Indigenous women go missing, yet they receive far less coverage. Most recently, Gabby Petito became a household name when the 22-year-old white, blonde social media personality went missing and was then found deceased. In a statement, her own father said all missing persons should be given the same attention, not just his child.
Non-white missing persons are often labeled as runaways or blamed for having a high-risk lifestyle. Their cases are given less attention by both police and media, resulting in lower solve rates.
White perpetrators are also represented differently in media. In 2015, a Color of Change study of the NYPD discovered Black perpetrators made up 51% of arrests for violent crime, but Black suspects made up 75% of violent crime reporting in New York. Instead of class photos, often used for white perpetrators, the media prints mug shots of non-white criminals.
Media outlets cater largely to white audiences, leaving Black, indigenous, and other non-white communities to cover their own members. The result is a skewed sense of who the world should care about.
Verner: Tragedy always seems newsworthy. When one country attacks another, when a hurricane strikes, or when there is a murder down the street.
The U.S. has established policies that the public has a right to know a lot. The 1980 Supreme Court case of Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, concluded that the First Amendment allows criminal trial proceedings to be public. Aside from safety-related exemptions, the Freedom of Information Act allows citizens to access federal records.
But the true crime genre is more the mere reporting of facts. The genre is defined by tantalization. The characters, the plot twists, and the tropes that call the case unsolved, or unresolved, are addicting.
Half of the Top Ten Apple podcasts in the U.S. are in the true crime genre, according to Chartable. Netflix’s Dahmer has become their second most-viewed English series, according to Forbes. Time Magazine reported that more than 1.6 million print copies of true-crime books were sold in 2018, compared to 976,000 copies in 2016.
The top true crime authors, podcasters, and documentarians make multiple millions of dollars in a single year. Often, this is done without the consent of all, or even any of, the parties involved in the original crime. Profit margins most often drive the product.
Allowing the public to peer into a case has led to positives before. Public theories can lead to new evidence. Families have had their stories heard on a national scale. Deeper still, society often learns something about its own humanity after collectively learning of a darker story.
Breslin: While it is okay to love true crime, the ability to decipher between the content that is helpful or hurtful to a victim’s story is critical.
Ashley: More diverse newsrooms and an active commitment on the part of crime reporters to treat all victims compassionately is the key to curing “missing white woman syndrome.”
Verner: I think 17-year-old Rachel Chestnut said it well in a contest-winning essay submitted to the New York Times. “The true crime genre has the potential to open minds and act as a public judicial review, but in order for it to successfully do so, it must abandon the sensationalization of tragedy for entertainment’s sake.”