True crime: for better or worse?

With the recent release of the Netflix series Dahmer, the crime entertainment industry is booming now more than ever. Police procedurals and court dramas have long been an integral part of America’s television and radio culture, but in recent years, convenient media outlets like podcasts have allowed for an increased fusion of journalism and public spectacle. Today, it is easy for anyone to pick up a microphone and just start recording; however, a subject such as this requires sensitivity and care, and it is hard to do so when there is so much blurring of the line between fact and fiction. What ethical issues present themselves when we take a closer look into this genre?

As the medium of podcasting has surged over the last decade, the idea of “true crime” has not been far behind. Just a few years ago, shows of this kind would have been filed under broader categories, like “News & Politics” or “History”. Today, however, just a simple look under the “Podcasts” tab on Spotify will net you an entire “Fiction Pods for True Crime Fans” category. But what leads people to become “fans” of this genre, or follow its output? 

In a case like Jeffery “Milwaukee Monster” Dahmer’s, the majority of his victims were men of queer and/or ethnic minority origin. It can be more than offputting for people of these identities to see the predominantly white portrayal, on social medias like TikTok, of people claiming they had ‘no problem’ getting through the Dahmer series, or how enthralled they were watching the episodic murders play out. 

What ethical issues present themselves when we take a closer look into this genre?

In part, this can be attributed to the market demand for true crime. Not every detail of a crime is going to be horror-movie-shot worthy, and therefore, cases must be shaved down to only the most sellable details. This is also where proximity to a crime comes into play, and is another thing that keeps the industry train chugging. When we have less personal relation to a victim, less in common with them, it can cause us to become too hasty with the handlings of their stories. There has been much media question around the conductance of victim portrayals in narrative-type series like Dahmer, and how families of these real-life victims are reached out to and possibly compensated. If a $300 million series may struggle in this aspect, even less thought or time may be put into a short podcast episode.

Overall, drastic changes need to be made in the way we produce and consume delicate media of this kind. If factors such as victim stories are not handled with tact, we risk more harm done to them. In our modern day, walking that line between marketability and damage control is more uncertain than ever, but we may find a starting point in just being conscious of the kind of environment we curate through popular culture.