Information or Exploitation? The Problems With True Crime


Megan Snyder

The focus of true crime has shifted from sharing content in an informative way, to the entertainment value of the crimes and the profits that can be made from disturbing content.

Sofia Gonzalez, Staff Reporter

True crime is a genre that you can’t avoid. You would think that with all the violence and crime in the world, we would want a break when we turn on the television or open a book. Yet for many, that is not the case.

What makes true crime different from the nightly news or live events is that it turns facts into a story encouraging viewers to emotionally connect with the narrative.

The morbid nature of the genre draws the attention of many. Half of Americans say they enjoy true crime and 13 percent say it’s their favorite genre. 

Those in favor of true crime believe that there are benefits to consuming the media, believing it can inform us of injustice and tells us about victims who may not be widely known. It allows viewers to become more involved with current events and in some cases, encourages them to become involved in ongoing cases, as seen in the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito. It is also a way to safely process and feel more negative emotions like fear, despair, and disgust.

Yet, for all these positives, true crime has some serious issues.

First of all, is it ethical to profit off of a murder?

The popularity of true crime podcast “Serial,” and the success of miniseries and documentaries on streaming platforms like “Making a Murder,” “Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story,” and “Tiger King,” have made one thing clear: true crime is a very profitable and popular business.

But this leads to questions on how the shows are structured. The majority of shows tend to give the killer a sympathetic backstory especially if they’re white, or focus on the possibility of a wrongful conviction.

The backstories serve the purpose of answering the question: what made them do what they did? This approach can tend to give a more sympathetic narrative which can distract from the victim’s story.

True crime tends to disproportionately focus on victims who are white women, broadcasting their stories to millions. This leaves out minority groups’ voices who are most affected by crime. For example, Black people are more likely to be victims of homicide. Yet the coverage of murdered African Americans is lacking. When minority victims are focused on, they are often not given the same sympathetic coverage that white victims get. “Those killed in predominantly Black or Hispanic neighborhoods are also less likely to be discussed as multifaceted, complex people,” as stated in an article by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The portrayal and coverage of victims is not the only part of the true crime genre that sparks outrage, the fact that these stories are being transformed into entertainment is also the topic of controversy. Many shows do not get consent from the family of the victims. By turning their loved ones’ stories into entertainment, it forces the family to relive the traumatic events of the past.

For example, in the lead up to the production of “I Am a Killer” the family of Robert Mast, who was murdered in 2015, begged Netflix not to go through with the series, saying it was “inhumane” to profit off a documentary at the, “emotional expense of a grieving family.”

Their pleas would fall to deaf ears as Netflix released the show to 60 million U.S. subscribers.

This is a significant problem of true crime, boiling down people’s murders into entertainment removes the meaningful element that was their life and turns it into any other story.

If the family agrees and thinks that sharing the story of what happened is a good idea and is something that the victim would have wanted, then they should get the right to write books and make movies about it. However, if they say no, they deserve the dignity and respect of being listened to and heard. 

True crime doesn’t just have issues regarding how the stories are crafted but also has an adverse effect on the viewers who consume the content.

Women make up for 75 percent of true crime podcasts listeners, making them the majority consumers of true crime content. This is because women have an easier time empathizing with the victim and the perpetrator. 

Another reason the audience makeup is higher in women is that watching or listening to true crime content is like facing their worst fears; they can envision themselves being the victim. In her article, “I’ll be Gone In the Dark Makes Us Ponder Our Own True Crime Fixation, reporter Jen Chaney wrote that, “true crime provides women with a sense that justice will prevail, even though we know it often doesn’t.”

True crime feeds the fear that women are more susceptible to violent, opportunistic crime than men because of how it over-represents women as victims. 

Our society conditions women to view themselves as more vulnerable than men. There is a pervasive cultural fear that women live with in this country, and others, because of their gender. This leads to them turning to true crime to get tips on how to avoid being a victim, and how to recognize danger signs. 

This is detrimental to mental health. Too much exposure to true crime can lead to paranoia, unsafe feelings, being more wary of others, and heightened anxiety. 

The popularity with true crime forms of multimedia can be credited to the 1996 novel “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, which details the Clutter family murders. This marked a point where the true crime genre became extremely profitable and a way for authors and to make their name known.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the genre, but the next time you search Netflix for a new true crime series to watch, or browse a bookstore looking for the newest novel about Ted Bundy, think: what purpose does this serve?

Does it inform and share a victim’s story, as someone whose life was unjustly taken from them?

Or does it give the author notoriety and the streaming service money?