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True crime sells, but fans are debating the ethics of their passion

<i>Brook Joyner/CNN</i><br/>A person browses true crime podcasts on their phone.
Brook Joyner/CNN
A person browses true crime podcasts on their phone.

By AJ Willingham, CNN

For some people, relaxation looks like settling down with a nice glass of wine and the most graphic, disturbing tale of murder imaginable.

True crime stories have always appealed to our baser natures. Now, the genre is practically a lifestyle, with endless docuseries, podcasts and investigations to binge and discuss over TikTok comments or the brunch table. An entire genre of lifestyle-slash-true-crime videos commands hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube, where influencers do their makeup while casually discussing all manner of atrocities.

It’s absurd, in a way, how something so dark has found such a hallowed place in the pantheon of pop culture. “Saturday Night Live” produced its own classic take on “murder shows,” and TikTok is full of jokes about people appearing to peacefully go about their lives while the voice in their headphones drones on about cut-off arms and legs. True crime releases show no signs of slowing down, with recent streaming titles including “The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker” (Netflix) and “Death in the Dorms” (Hulu).

However, the boom in sordid tales of human woe has led some true crime enthusiasts to consider the ethical ramifications of their passion. After all, true crime is called “true” for a reason. At the heart of every new Netflix special or headline-making investigation is a victim and a family, to say nothing of the countless people whose involvement in these tragedies amounts to far more than entertainment. Is there an ethical way to be a true crime fan? And if there is, what’s acceptable and what’s not?

One fan draws the line

Bobbi Miller, an entertainment expert and host of the entertainment podcast “The Afternoon Special,” has been leading conversations about ethical true crime consumption for years. She says she felt uncomfortable watching “Dahmer,” the first installment of a Netflix true crime anthology series that focused on the notorious serial killer.

She felt even more uncomfortable watching the series explode in popularity despite widespread concerns among true crime watchers that the slickly produced series glamorized Jeffrey Dahmer and unfolded counter to the wishes of some of his victims’ families. Evan Peters, who played the titular role, even won a Golden Globe for his portrayal, inviting further outcry from people affected by Dahmer’s very real crimes.

“I do think true crime is unethical,” she tells CNN. “It doesn’t mean it’s something that shouldn’t exist. The line in the sand, for me, is whether a piece of media takes a fiction or non-fiction approach, in terms of sensationalizing the narrative or trying create appeal around a criminal.”

While some documentaries and other media contain nuance and respect that sets them apart from more sordid offerings, Miller says she still encourages people to not let their enjoyment of true crime cross the line into obsession. Ethical true crime stories, she says, are the ones that focus on victims and don’t center the criminal as some cult of personality or mysterious mind to untangle.

“When you walk away from a true crime story, it should be with a certain amount of reverence for the victim,” she says.

Entertainment or reality?

The viewing public has always had a strong interest in so-called “trials of the century,” whether they crowded around a TV during the OJ Simpson trial in the 1990s or snatched up newspapers to keep track of the crimes of Lizzie Borden in the 1800s. However, the popularity of 2014’s “Serial” podcast launched true crime into a new era of ubiquity. Over the next decade, it became one of the most popular genres across multiple forms of media. In 2020, true crime was the third most popular podcast genre across all major podcast platforms, with major shows like “My Favorite Murder” and “Crime Junkie” clocking in among the top 10 most listened-to offerings for the year.

Women are more likely to be true crime fans than men, and that was true even before the current “Serial”-led era. Now, women are much more likely to follow true crime stories on social media — a major meeting place for people to either consume so-called murder shows together or comment on current cases.

This gendered appeal is evident in all the ways true crime bleeds into other areas of pop culture: Many popular true crime influencers on YouTube are young women. Before fans dig in to their latest documentary, an endless supply of murder-themed merch on Etsy assures they can snuggle up with a “This is my true crime watching blanket” throw, light a Jeffrey Dahmer-themed candle or pour some tea in a mug that reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue. I’ve watched enough crime shows. They’ll never find you.”

Miller also notes that true crime fans communicate and trade information in ways that are very similar to other entertainment fandoms.

“The difference is, ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel fandoms treat their fiction as if it’s real, where true crime fandoms treat something very real as fiction,” she says.

Why, exactly, true crime is so appealing is its own unsolved mystery.

“I definitely think that part of the reason women are drawn to true crime is that there is a level of relatability for women to the victims in these stories,” says Brigham Young University communications professor Kevin John. “And we often project ourselves onto the media we consume.”

This blurred line can cause real damage when true crime fans look past sordid docuseries and addicting podcasts to find entertainment in real-life cases that have yet to fully bear out. The murder of four University of Idaho students in late 2022 is a tragic example of what happens when crimes are treated as mysteries to be solved. The investigation went on for weeks before police arrested suspect Bryan Kohberger, prompting amateur detectives to post various theories, including unfounded accusations against those they suspected, online.

Finding a solution

True crime content has gotten a huge boost from TikTok and YouTube, where cases new and old can be broken down into a few short, tantalizing segments or spun together for hour-plus deep dives that lock in fascinated viewers. These platforms are also where a lot of true crime influencers and devotees are trying to work through the ethical quandaries of the genre.

Several meaningful conversations have been started by family members or loved ones of victims who have seen their pain turned into entertainment — sometimes against their will.

Mariah Day’s mother, Betsy Faria, was murdered in 2011, and her case attracted breathless media coverage, including a spot on Dateline. In 2022, her story was part of a drama miniseries called “The Thing About Pam,” starring Renee Zellwegger as the titular Pam Hupp, who was charged with Faria’s murder in 2021.

Day uses her TikTok account to advocate for victim awareness, and give people a glimpse of what it’s like on the other side of the true crime love affair.

“My trauma is not your entertainment,” she says in one video. “Awareness is a whole different story. Let’s talk about it.”

True crime fans who are trying to be responsible about their interests sometimes call for others to avoid certain media, either because of the narrative or because it was created without the consent of those affected.

Even Dr. Phil — the Dr. Phil, who comments on criminal cases as part of his brand — has shared tips on how to responsibly consume true crime content.

While he says curiosity for the dark side of human nature is normal, “don’t fall for some romanticized version. Focus on the facts. There’s no soundtrack in life. Only pain.” He also suggests doing something positive for the families of victims, learning about crime legislation, or using true crime as a teaching moment to help others stay alert.

This deconstruction, this interrogation of what true crime entertainment provides and who it endangers, doesn’t necessarily run counter to enjoyment of the genre, as many debates about true crime ethics begin within the community itself.

Miller points out that there are larger social issues at play. “It’s really fascinating to observe who interacts with true crime. It’s a lot of White women,” she says. “That says a lot when you think about the types of cases that get this kind of coverage, and the types of cases that get attention in the US judicial system.”

The public tendency to focus on young, White female victims is an enduring complication of true crime, stretching back through the cases of JonBenét Ramsey, Madeleine McCann and Natalee Holloway to more recently, the murder of Gabby Petito. This “missing White woman syndrome,” as it’s colloquially called, is another facet that proponents of ethical true crime seek to confront.

Jordan Preston’s sister, Brooke Preston, was stabbed to death by her roommate in 2017. Preston attracted a social media following after heavily criticizing the 2021 documentary “Dead Asleep,” which profiles her sister’s killer and his defense that he committed the murder while sleepwalking.

When one TikTok commenter asked her how there would be any documentaries at all if families always had a say, Preston replied that kind of attention could actually go toward pursuing justice for others.

“Can someone please explain why your entertainment is so much more important than … what a victim’s family wants?” she said in response. “There are so many crimes committed (where) victims don’t get the type of recognition and attention and media coverage they literally need to get solved. For some reason, (other) victims’ families are getting re-victimized, and put through trauma they need to deal with all over again.”

Ethical true crime, then, could be the kind that puts victims and their loved ones first, or explores how and which cases get solved and how the legal system bears out. It could be the kind, as victim advocates suggest, that focuses on cases of missing and exploited Indigenous people and people of color. Mindful true crime fans want to be kept up at night by the answers they seek — not by the harm the genre may cause others.

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