True crime: is it ethical?

While the true crime genre is certainly a popular one, which has gained much traction due to its expansion into other forms of media – such as podcasts – the question of whether it is ever truly ethical is a key point of contention. While I in no way intend to shame anyone who is intrigued by this genre, I think it is important to point out the ethical issues. Firstly, there is a problem with how it is often approached, with too much of a focus on the ‘perfect victim’ and lack of equal representation. Problems also arise regarding how people react to consumption of true crime, in a disrespectful or harmful way, often negatively affecting the legacy of the victim themselves, as well as the families and friends involved.  

The genre’s appeal comes from its ability to thrill, emulating the feelings of intrigue that are evoked by fictional murder mysteries, in which one is put in the position of a detective, and encouraged to bring clues together in order to solve a crime. However, this of course has its drawbacks, as people often blur the line between fiction and reality, failing to realise that the crime they are invested in is one that has happened in reality. When people treat sensational true crime cases like a fictional murder mystery, this can lead them to identify suspects and place the blame on family members or friends involved in the case. While in fictional murder mysteries, plot twists often reveal that it was someone close to the victim who committed the crime, this is done to elevate shock factor, and may be thrilling in a fictional context, but should not be applied to real life. When families and friends already dealing with the grief of losing of a loved one, being faced with assumptions, false or otherwise, and harassment from strangers is damaging, and should be left to the professionals. No matter how far removed we may feel from the story, the victim is a real person with real families and friends.

Aside from the reactions of the audience, there are also ethical problems within the production of true crime documentaries and podcasts themselves. For one, in regard to the overrepresentation of a certain type of victim, seen as the ‘perfect victim’. There is a focus on women as victims in true crime storytelling, despite the fact that Lauren Frederick’s findings showed that men actually make up the large majority of murder victims, stating that ‘According to the UCR, 78.3% (n=10,908) of the 13,927 murder victims in 2019 were men.’ There is reason for this overrepresentation, which is that studies have shown that women are the key demographic. Amanda Vicary and R. Fraley’s 2010 study found that audiences of true crime were mostly female, and attributed this to the ‘fear of true crime’, believing ‘women to be more interested in true crime books because of the potential survival cues contained therein’. So, in order to reach this target demographic, producers of true crime shows and books focus more on women. However, the overrepresentation of women, which fails to reflect real crime statistics in the U.S., has damaging consequences on public opinion, by encouraging damaging stereotypes of women as vulnerable and men as violent. As well as this, there are also problems with the way true crime documentaries fail to represent different racial groups. The victims described are often not just women, but white women. Research has shown that, on the whole, true crime podcasts and documentaries ‘lacked representation of Black men, who make up a majority of victims and offenders in the U.S., as well as multiracial women, Latino men, AAPI, and Native Americans’. While there are some examples of true crime podcasts tackling racial injustice, by focusing on forgotten black victims and murders – such as Finding Tamika, Black Girl Gone and Sistas who Kill – this is still an area that needs much development. Although this narrative style is a form of storytelling and should be conducive to representing the crime statistics while also allowing marginalised groups to have their voices heard, it continually fails to do so. As produces are so focused on appealing to a white female audience, their target demographic, they inadvertently perpetuate sexist and racist stereotypes.

Additionally, many see true crime as a form of negative sensationalism. Sensationalism is commonly used in the media and is defined as ‘the presenting of facts or stories in a way that is intended to produce strong feelings of shock, anger, or excitement.’ However, surely to dramatize the tragic story of someone real, and transform it into a narrative form, as a marketing ploy, is disrespectful? Amanda Frisken and Gretchen Soderlund also drew attention to ‘how sensationalist media shape—and disrupt—popular understandings of truth’, perhaps leading to the spread of rumours and misinformation, purely for the sake of profit. This focus on profit plays a part in the process of dehumanisation of the victims, reducing them to mere statistics, rather than real people to be remembered for who they truly were. Poet Danez Smith gave an insightful commentary on this phenomenon, when talking about elegiac reflection on death, a form of poetry meant to mourn an individual and celebrate a life, rather than profit from it. Smith stated that, ‘What happens with the spectacle of death is that it makes you know a person without actually knowing them’, drawing attention to how it is difficult to really memorialize someone when you know them only by their status as a victim. To continue to define them by this alone is surely dehumanising and disrespectful, both to the victim and their loved ones.

So, while there is widespread enjoyment of true crime documentaries and podcasts, and this should not be shamed, it is important to be aware of how the serialisation of a victim’s life can create a separation between us and them, causing the audience to see the story as purely fictional, and the damaging effects that this can cause.

Featured image: Kat Wilcox via Pexels

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