Is True Crime an unethical, sensationalist media form exploiting real horrific tragedies?
The surge of the true crime space within the online community has revealed an unending desire for true crime content. Since the secret is out, bite sized clips, podcasts and numerous docuseries have emerged to satisfy this rumbling hunger. True crime provides a supposedly harmless opportunity to role-play as mystery detectives and speculate possible case theories and persons of interest. However, unlike your typical MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), true crime involves the stories of real people experiencing real graphic tragedies.
Indeed, published documentaries at the very least require a prior understanding of media law or ethics, however, independent creators on platforms such as Spotify, Youtube and Tiktok have no rules governing how true crime may be presented. Creators are free to upload content without the consent of victims or the victim’s family, and potentially interfere with ongoing investigations and a fair trial. True crime creators are at risk of sensationalising tragedies for mass entertainment as if they were purely fictional stories rather than true recounts of sometimes heinous crimes. As a result, the victim’s family is often left retraumatised by the increased number of eyes and opinions on the murder or disappearance of their loved one, all while the creator receives a sizeable cheque from Adsense, and the audience momentarily fill their appetite.
One example is the podcast My Favourite Murder which juxtaposes the graphic, sad stories with comedy and personable hosts. Although the podcast accurately depicts the facts, the humour packages the awful crimes in a palatable manner for the audience to consume – as if the audience is sitting in and listening to friendly gossip. The style is similarly adopted by Youtubers and Tiktokers who present true crime content while doing a mukbang* or applying make-up.
The little jokes while eating or the application of makeup as barriers to confronting how truly horrific cases are is problematic, and a privilege which was not afforded to the victims or their loved ones. It’s tempting to say that we are simply distancing ourselves from the reality, however, it’s possibly more true that some of us hold a false belief to be entitled to satisfy our rumbling hunger and hear the pain of victims and survivors in a palatable manner.
True crime content has also hindered proper judicial processes and the rights of an accused, particularly, where investigations remain on foot. Reporters and content creators are indeed masters at using information to appeal to the emotion of the audience. However, we must remember their understanding of the law surrounding the admissibility of evidence, the right to a fair trial and the concept of innocent until proven guilty is less informed. True crime content has too often infringed these core principles, and have misled others into thinking that unsubstantiated accusations are harmless.
In the recent murders at the Idaho college, the Mosco Police Department were flooded with nearly 20,000 tips by amateur detectives scrutinising clues presented on TikTok. Despite the already existing pressure caused by the onslaught of nationwide media attention, the Department were forced to exhaust resources, which could have been used differently, to review each tip with care.
The reality is that the theories created by amateur detectives are usually based on evidence that is circumstantial at best and can adversely expose them to potential lawsuits. Disseminating an unverified theory prejudices a person’s character and so is considered potentially libellous. One amateur detective is now facing a defamation suit for accusing a professor at the University of Idaho based off a tarot card reading.
That being said, there are instances where true crime content has led to a more just outcome by promoting transparency on the legal and investigative processes. This was seen in the reopening of Adnan Syed’s case due to the show Serial, and the $41 million USD settlement entered into by the wrongly convicted Central Park Five, following the film in 2012.
Whilst the true crime space can promote a deeper understanding of the law, the legal and investigative processes ought to be left within the institutions that society has agreed and not in the court of popular opinion. We can continue to be fascinated by true crime stories, however, we should make a conscious effort to consume our content in a more empathetic manner which does not impede legal processes to prevent the true crime space from developing into an unethical, sensationalist media form where the community is merely exploiting off the real graphic stories that are happening to real ordinary people.
* For those of you that don’t know, a mukbang is an online audio-visual broadcast in which a host consumes food whilst interacting with the audience.