The Triumph of True Crime Media
Bloody, disturbing and fascinatingly personal, ‘true crime’ is a cultural phenomenon that has changed the way the public perceives and interacts with the perpetrators of violent crime. As a genre with hundreds of millions of fans across international boundaries, this new media deserves attention as a form of criminal law prepared specifically for popular consumption.
In this article, we explore the explosive popularity of true crime content, its enduring grip on modern culture and why these traits have become a cause for concern among some legal professionals.
What is True Crime?
By its most common definition, ‘true crime’ is a non-fiction genre of popular media that concerns real-life crimes. The focus of a work of true crime may be a single case – often a murder, disappearance, sexual assault or other violent crime – or the collective acts of a single criminal. Emphasis is placed on the presentation of facts and, where possible, the establishment of a chronology of events that took place during the crime.
Most true crime works are divided between ‘solved’ and ‘unsolved’ in their choice of subject matter. The former examine historic cases where a culprit has been identified and most or all details of their criminal acts uncovered. The latter are characterised by the intense speculation they often stoke among avid fans as to perpetrators’ identities, actions and motives, though most content creators place the greatest focus on relaying known facts and state explicitly when opinion becomes involved.
One of the earliest and most well-known subjects of true crime fascination was the media-dubbed Jack the Ripper, whose serial murders inspired speculation that continues to the modern day. It can be said that ‘true crime’ is only the contemporary label that has been attached to a form of entertainment with a far longer history.
The Meteoric Rise
The first immortalisations of real-world criminals came in the form of ballads and penny dreadfuls, though the true crime genre as we understand it today has its roots in TV documentaries. ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Making a Murderer’ are two of the most prominent documentaries whose use of reenactments and other now-common techniques laid the foundations for the present shape of the genre. This would go on to be fully codified by the emergence of internet-based media and podcasts, such as ‘Serial’ in 2014 and ‘Dr. Death’ in 2018, among innumerable others that now fully saturate the subculture.
These podcasts, which can be listened to while travelling or otherwise active, saw a significant increase in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic that some psychologists attributed to a need for escapism in daily life. Now, true crime is an entertainment staple. A full half of Americans polled in 2022 said that they enjoyed true crime media, with one in three saying that they consumed it at least once per week. The demographic most prone to enjoying true crime consists, perhaps surprisingly, of teenage and young adult women, with the majority preferring to view their favoured content in TV or film format.
A full half of Americans polled in 2022 said that they enjoyed true crime media, with one in three saying that they consumed it at least once per week.
Mainstream entertainment has seen the allure of true crime and the audiences that flock to it, and high-budget productions emulating the genre have begun to emerge. One such example would be Netflix’s controversial series ‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”, which focused predominantly on recreating the life of the titular serial killer – and which narrowly avoided a lawsuit from Lionel Dahmer over its perceived “exaltation” of his son’s killings.
Where is the Harm?
True crime’s mainstream acceptance is not shocking. Many are drawn to this particular form of media in order to receive, as The University of Law’s Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen describes it, a controlled experience of fear and horror where “the stories of real-life killers can be to adults what films and shows depicting fictional monsters are for children”. Arguments that true crime is exploitative, promotes paranoia or sensationalises violence are not new to any form of adult-oriented fiction or non-fiction, and there seems to be little empirical evidence to suggest that it profoundly influences viewer behaviour.
However, there is somewhat more reason to fear the investigative culture that has been fostered in in many communities of true crime consumers. The ‘unsolved’ sub-genre of true crime taps into the attraction of playing armchair detective, picking apart a mystery that law enforcement has been unable to solve. Many pieces of true crime media appear to deliberately elicit these reactions, offering information sometimes not available to the public as ‘clues’ and pointing out unresolved threads in otherwise settled cases to engage the deductive segment of their audience. Speculation is often encouraged, and viewers often set out to find facts beyond what the original media has presented to them.
There is a wealth of documented instances of such internet communities getting involved in criminal investigations, or even unearthing new developments in otherwise cold cases. In some cases, this has led to positive outcomes; the efforts of amateur web sleuths were vital in unmasking the murderers of Gregory May and Abraham Shakespeare, among other cases. One notable example emerged in 2021 with the arrest of Paul Flores in connection with the death of Kristin Smart, for which California authorities thanked the creator of the eight-part true crime podcast ‘Your Own Backyard’ for turning up new witnesses for interview.
Risk and Responsibility
For each of the aforementioned successes, there are many more instances of prospective sleuths hunting the wrong target or taking it upon themselves to engage in internet vigilantism, often resulting in the harassment of victims’ families. True crime’s new popularity has thrown the relationship between journalists and the subjects they cover into stark relief; many content creators have landed in legal jeopardy as a result of coverage that has later been deemed biased or sensationalised, though this tends to come too late for those who have been targeted as a result.
The significance of the issue is such that Ashurst has issued a set of guidelines for aspiring true crime series creators, laying out the potential legal ramifications of speculating on real-world events. “Producers must therefore carefully balance the legal risks of publishing the material with the value of telling the story”, the guide suggests.
We at Lawyer Monthly would echo the advice. Today, we enjoy ease of access to information unlike any other period in history, but this information is often incomplete or lacking essential context. It is the responsibility of true crime content creators to present their stories with as much integrity as possible, elevating their platform above easy muckraking and urging their audiences to act with similar caution. As more amateur podcasts begin to take on this professional outlook, we hope to see a shift towards greater accountability in the true crime space – and, potentially, a raising of standards for online behaviour that places greater focus on the rights of victims.