The Ethics of True Crime Entertainment

Written by: Kim Sooahn (22-A6), Alexia Teo (22-U1) 

Designed by: Rebecca Yap (22-O1)

Since before the birth of modern media, our pull towards the morbid has stood undaunted. The development of criminal justice together with the spread of the printing press in the 1600s brought forth writings centred around true crime. Back then, they often had a didactic touch and underlined various religious values. 

With the rise of broadcast and social media starting in the 60s, this phenomenon seems to be bolstered. Now, a whole media genre has cemented around it: true crime entertainment.

The roots of the true-crime entertainment scene as we know it can be traced to Truman Capote’s 1965 non-fiction novel “Cold Blood”. Its success prompted a movie adaptation to be made and displayed the profit-making ability of the genre and paved the way for the audiovisual representation of true crime. 

These days, the production of true crime entertainment has become more decentralised. Platforms like YouTube and even TikTok have served to ensure this. 

Content creators detailing gruesome incidents and events while partaking in mundane tasks like putting on makeup have become a common sight; even a source of disbelieving derision. Some big names on Youtube such as Buzzfeed have even come up with their own twist to True Crime mysteries such as the Buzzfeed Unsolved series where the hosts come up with theories to solve cold cases throughout history. Podcasts have also sprung forward, which many ironically listen to while seeking relaxation and peace. Notable Podcasts include Serial in which the hosts take a deep dive into the true crime scene for podcasts and lay the foreground for many podcasts to follow. That is not to say that big names have not boarded the true crime entertainment wave. Netflix has gotten big names like Zac Efron involved in true crime adaptations such as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. These adaptations that often feature sensationalism and attractive actors aimed at maximising profit tend to desensitise viewers to the true atrocity and horrors of crimes. 

Not only do content creators use true crime as a platform to gain views, but many news outlets also need the viewership hence they use these true crimes to attract more viewers and gain more attention. True crime tends to get higher viewership as the titles are seemingly more entertaining than the others. With the general public’s disdain for violence and crimes, it will garner a lot of attention thus allowing the company to gain more recognition and money. News outlets tend to show support against these true crimes and other publishers also start to follow suit. One notable example is when the New York Times published a detailed investigation into allegations of sexual harassment hence being recognised as one of the defining early movements of the #MeToo movement. After that movement, a flooding number of publishers wrote about the movement, starting a trend. 

The inundation of true crime productions has contributed to its normalisation and caused viewers and followers to treat fresh and developing crime with distance instead of empathy. This can be observed in recent court cases like Heard v Depp, which took social media by storm. Memes, inappropriate edits, and insensitive hashtags flooded the Internet even before an actual verdict was confirmed. That which should have been a semi-private and solemn proceeding was quickly transformed into an international and hotly-discussed debacle through social media. 

The overt publicising of court cases and criminal investigations even before they conclude can cause the court of public opinion to make its premature conclusion, and may inadvertently cause biases in the processes and outcomes. 

In addition, a New York Times article discusses how the consumption of true crime entertainment can make the world seem more dangerous than it actually is (especially as crime rates seem to be following a downward trend). This in turn can lead to increased anxiety and fear among the vulnerable.

For the relatives of victims, unnecessary public speculation and scrutiny into their private lives can prevent them from seeking closure. The sensationalism of true crime can make viewers and followers feel detached from the victims and those involved. For example, years after the case of a man who was strangled in a Walmart parking lot, a Netflix documentary called I Am a Killer was created based on it, despite the family and friends of the victim pleading to abandon the project which was just ignored. The documentary decidedly portrays the victim’s murderer in a sympathetic light and is set for a third season. The ethics for this documentary was completely off as the family’s consent should be at the forefront for these adaptations to happen. There are many examples like these across true crime entertainment, where the victim’s family wishes were blatantly ignored. Instead, as these cases are retold, they have to relive this horrible moment over and over again. 

There have also been cases where true crime fans take it upon themselves to play detectives for more recent cases (like kidnappings) and do their own amateur research by diving into the social media profiles of victims. By reducing tragic events to games or quests for personal enjoyment and ignoring and intruding into the privacy of victims and families, fans often pose an obstacle to the healing and recovery of relatives. 

In addition to the victim’s family being affected, the general public is quick to turn everything on the media for their gain and entertainment. This is seen from Gabby Petito’s case. She is a woman who disappeared between 27 and 30 August 2021, and was later found deceased on 19 September 2021. There were millions of speculations on what could have happened to her with hashtags trending all over social media platforms such as TikTok. The surprising thing is how quickly people turned to consuming Prtito’s case as though it was entertainment, with the case being digested through social media posts made in pastels and in trending TikTok sounds. Petito is a real person who was confirmed dead and there are millions of people who are digging into her private life to find details as if they were detectives themselves. 

On the other hand, experts often agree that a fascination with true crime is natural. It seems that the point of contention is the extent to which many true crime followers pursue their interest in cases. Although it is fine to watch and consume the genre, the average person must never forget their place as a mere viewer who lacks experience in investigative fields. As such, fans should refrain from insensitive accusations and speculations that could come up at the psychological and even legal cost to family members and victims. Behind the screen, we must never forget that there were and are real people who suffer from these crimes and we must treat these cases with due weight. 

Author: The Origin*

With great power comes great responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: