It is 11 p.m. on a school night in 2010 and you’re ten years old, sneaking down the stairs where your mother fell asleep watching either one of the many versions of CSI (it’s probably CSI New York or SVU) or Criminal Minds. Although you like all of these shows, you’re hoping that your favorite is on: Bones. You want to see which gruesome and sophisticated case Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth have to crack this time. After two hours of eager watching you fall asleep too and wake up a little confused later that night. You’re wondering what’s currently on, since the people on TV are not actors but rather real people giving interviews about what seem to be murder cases. Looking at the TV programme you realize it is a show called Medical Detectives, where each episode covers a crime case that happened to real, ordinary people. Rather than actors, real murder vicitms and actual detectives as well as medical professionals are talking. They show real case files and photos of the victims. A shiver goes down your spine. This is not the content your feeble ten year old self has signed up for. Shook up, you turn off the TV and sneak back into your bedroom, but not without checking if the front door is properly locked.
True Crime is not a new media genre. There has always been an obsession with real murder cases and the criminals behind them. The earliest version of ‘True Crime Shows’ is probably the intensive media coverage that the serial killers of the seventies and eighties received. But the attention that True Crime gets today is much more broad. You don’t need a TV anymore and you do not have to solely rely on your local news channel or TV program either. You can simply use your phone and listen to a (more or less) professional podcast, watch a YouTube video or use one of the various streaming platforms to find a documentary on a case that interests you.
But is it a good thing that there is such a wide variety of consumption options? And what about the people behind it and their responsibilities? Whether it’s good or bad is a normative question and therefore has to be discussed thoroughly. There are arguments for both sides, but I’d like to point out that there probably is no definite answer to whether or not the True Crime genre is morally permissible or not.
Journalists can do both good and bad. They can shed light on unknown facts about cases and individuals, but they can also deliberately leave out certain aspects to tell a story according to their own personal beliefs. Beliefs are subjective and biased and therefore journalists should be as objective as possible in their research, as well as in their reports. True Crime content thus has to be subjected to certain standards to prevent bias and prejudice. Hazel Wright describes in her Paper „Ethics and True Crime: Setting a Standard for the Genre“ the following standards: “well-researched, clear, humanizing, non-sensationalist, non-glorifying, and socially aware”1.
That the cases that get presented should be well-researched is obvious, because otherwise people may experience harm. An innocent individual could get falsely accused or even convicted, the actual criminal could get away, and the victim’s family can be subjected to unnecessary trouble. The findings and the case need to be presented in a clear and understandable way, otherwise misunderstandings can occur, which may result in broader problems, such as wrong beliefs of media-consumers about who is guilty. Many journalists and True Crime documentaries dehumanize either the victims or the criminals of the cases. Victims are often no more than just a name and a photo. Therefore consumers of True Crime content usually don’t get to know much about them. Furthermore, the criminal is sometimes overly glorified, which in turn may obscure the humanity of the victim, but also the criminals who are dehumanized by the media, mustn’t be forgotten. They are dehumanized by being called monsters and requests of the public and the media for the death penalty, which is understandable to a certain degree since most cases are emotionally loaden. But they still are humans and therefore have a right to not be dehumanized.Pieces of True Crime media should further be non-sensationalist. Which means that journalists shouldn’t dramatize or glamourize their reports by overloading them with the most horrible adjectives to paint the most gruesome picture so people are drawn to their article. Especially if non-proven circumstances are used to generate attention. The glorification of criminals, especially of serial killers like Bundy, Gacy, and Dahmer, shouldn’t be considered as morally permissible. Some serial killers receive either special names tied to their crimes, their looks or the places of their crimes. Due to the strong glorification, some consumers of True Crime content become obsessed with the serial killers, usually because of either their looks or their perceived character and charisma. The research and reporting of True Crime also has to be socially aware. This means that journalists have to consider the circumstances, rights of the involved and broader social issues that might arise in a case, such as racism or misogyny.
Although some journalists are or have been guilty of not following these rather obvious standards for reporting and researching criminal cases, they probably present a bigger issue for some podcasters and video creators. Especially the ones who lack journalistic experience and knowledge or produce the content only for views and clicks. But are these uncritical content creators the ones who have to suffer the consequences of their improper research methods and ways of communicating their findings? Probably not. Whilst the families of the victims suffer retraumatization because of the glorified, sensationalized and constant reminders of these crimes portrayed in mainstream media, the consumer may also suffer, albeit differently.
The sometimes rather brutal content of these podcasts and shows is not intended for young viewers, yet they still have access to it. Older listeners and watchers might find the content disturbing as well, resulting in some sleepless nights. Other graver consequences include individuals developing a deeper mistrust of people around them, subconsciously trying to find patterns that they recognize from criminal cases. These could range from looking over your shoulder every few minutes when you walk down a street at night or switching to the other side of the road when somebody is approaching you to distrusting even your spouse or siblings because of cases where the victim was murdered by someone they trust. Unlearning such a general distrust can be very hard and even require therapy if anxiety decides to join.
Uncritical individuals consuming True Crime content might find themselves in situations where they later on realize that they were wrong about an alleged perpetrator, who they may have further fueled hate against online or in real life. Realizing you were wrong about something is never easy, but when you recognize that you have directly or indirectly harmed an innocent individual with your actions – that is a lot harder to digest and cope with. On the other hand, when the consumers perceive the convicted individual as innocent they might start to forget about the victims or even try to play down the actual crime and start discrediting the victims.
So is it morally permissible to consume True Crime content? Under certain conditions the consummation can be legitimate or even beneficial. It’s important that the cases of the innocently incarcerated are heard so future mistakes can be avoided or be exposed earlier, maybe even by the public. Consumers then also learn about the legal system and what they can do if they ever find themselves in a similar situation. But in general consumers should be aware when they listen to podcasts or watch shows. They need to keep an eye and ear out for bad journalistic tactics and should not support or promote content creators that do not follow the standards for the production of True Crime content. In my opinion there also is an obligation to call out and boycott improper journalism or shows that are based on real cases, like the Netflix show Jeffrey Dahmer starring Evan Peters, where family members of the victims were not asked for permission and the creators of the show even disregarded their wishes, which retraumatized them.
These guidelines for proper consummation of True Crime content are important, not only out of respect for the victims, the criminals, family members and for oneself, but because there seems to be no decline of the popularity of the content.
1Wright, Hazel, „Ethics and True Crime: Setting a Standard for the Genre“ (2020). Book Publishing Final Research Paper. 51.