The Ethics of True Crime
The first time I really identified with the label of a “true crime fan” was in tenth grade, when I first listened to the podcast Serial. Between then and now, I consumed almost exclusively true crime content in the form of podcasts, documentaries, youtube and the like. It wasn’t until many years later that I started to feel the need to examine the impacts of my relationship with true crime. It is, after all, TRUE crime, and the families of the victims are often still around, and sometimes seeing the monetized content that is circulated about their experience. The number of times that I have heard others say, and I admit to having said, something along the lines of: “I love the JonBenet Ramsey case,” makes me feel a little more off-put than I did when I first ventured into the True Crime Community, or the TCC, as TikTok users have begun to call it.
As much as we may not like to think about it, true crime content, no matter the form in which it comes, has real life impacts on cases happening now, and the living families of the victims. The audience of true crime media often find themselves in the trap of archetyping and characterizing the real victims and real perpetrators, to the point of minimizing them into one-dimensionality, and then making judgements about the actions of the real people whom we perceive to be characters. The victims of these horrific crimes did not consent to have their stories told, and monetized, and the families of the victims oftentimes have not consented to have their traumas profited off of either. A simple search for the phrase ‘True Crime’ on Etsy yields memorabilia for myriad serial killers, with their combined victim counts in the 100s- Edmund Kemper, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and the like. There is a high likelihood of the families of victims seeing one of the many items sold commemorating these people, and the families of victims have spoken out about the nonconsensual monetization of their experience. The mother of a victim stated that her son’s murder being included in a 2016 Netflix docuseries was “her greatest fear,” and the sister of the victim in question pointing out the re-traumatization of the families with the release of True Crime media.
In selective doses, True Crime can be a fun pastime. I was listening to the Crime Junkies podcast on the way home today, as I have done every Monday for the past two or so years. True Crime media doesn't necessarily have to be harmful, but in many cases, it is. Some helpful pointers for finding ethical True Crime content, or content that is close to ethical, is to seek out media that links to donation or petition websites that are supported by the families of victims, seek out media that avoids trivializing the content by joking to an inappropriate degree or making baseless speculations, and vet the media by doing a quick google search on the history and online discourse surrounding it. Watching a Youtube video about your favourite 70s serial killer may be fun for half an hour, but knowing that the families of victims are comfortable might make you feel better for longer.