The Ethics of True Crime for Entertainment

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Like many other people, I’m a self confessed true crime junkie. I subscribe to over 40 podcasts on iTunes and all but three of those are true crime. I list Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as one of my all time favourite novels and I create a podcast myself. One which has given me an embarrassingly encyclopaedic knowledge of unsolved UK murders and disappearances and a regularly questionable internet search history. The recent rise in the popularity of the genre and the DIY nature of the podcasting industry has opened the door to a host of small time creators looking to bring attention to solved and unsolved cases and I’m right there with them, though not without some trepidation.

As true crime fans, we passively consume the stories that the creative team behind a show want to tell. We hear about victims and killers and their motivations and usually there is a hook. Perhaps that hook is a miscarriage of justice, bad police work resulting in a faulty conviction, an unusual murder which has never been solved. It can be the psychology of a killer, their background and the escalation of their crimes and the best of these shows have balance, objectivity and entertainment value with an overarching message. They’re not my focus here. I’m talking about the podcasts like mine which don’t claim to be journalism. They’re mostly independent, the type without network backing, which use true crime storytelling for entertainment purposes. Because even after the right man or woman is behind bars and there is nothing more to uncover, we are still interested in macabre acts committed by the worst of humanity and it is here that a moral grey area begins exist.

As a listener I expect to hear a true crime storytelling show which deals with a victim and their family in a sensitive and dignified fashion. There are plenty out there who do just that. In the UK there is The True Crime Enthusiast, Murder Mile and The Unseen Podcast to name a few. These are independent shows produced by generally only one person, who researches, writes, produces and edits stories which choose to cover violence and murder but do so in a way which is respectful to the victim(s) and their family. They might detail the facts of a crime but it feels necessary to the story they are telling and they understand that we as creators have a responsibility to a victim to remember them with a sense of humanity. Sadly, this is not always the case. I recently stumbled across an episode of a relatively new podcast in which the writer and host was detailing the rape of a woman. The show has a narrative focus which combines fact with storytelling and immersive audio and that should make a brilliant combination but in this case it was used to ill advised effect. As the host built up to the woman’s rape the music swelled and the pace increased and then it was happening, in a real time narrative which described everything that happened to the woman in graphic detail. It wasn’t created with respect to the woman who had suffered the act, she became nothing more than a device to build tension and disgust in listeners and by doing so her humanity had been stripped.

After the episode ended I thought for a long time about whether or not to approach the podcaster and tell him how I felt. I had resolved not to when I saw that he’d written on Twitter asking for opinions after a listener had contacted him to tell him that the episode was too intense for them. It sounded as if he wanted feedback and so I obliged. I was respectful of his show and I hoped that my advice would be taken on board. Sadly, it quickly emerged that he is of the opinion that when writing about true crime the line of what constitutes entertainment is arbitrary, essentially that anything goes. An article written in The New Statesman entitled Can True Crime Entertainment Ever Be Ethical asks;

“Do we want to know every gory detail of these crimes because we care about the victim, or because it excites us?”

For the majority of true crime consumers the answer is probably a little bit of both and so as podcasters we undertake a moral responsibility towards the victims, families and friends of those affected by crime to provide them with dignity. As I told this particular creator, I believe that the line for what constitutes entertainment in this genre is not arbitrary, it is in fact, really quite simple. Have regard for victims and be sensitive of your audience. This may come in the form of a specific trigger warning for rape or by sacrificing a cheap thrill for respectful storytelling. There are plenty of shows which manage to walk this line to brilliant, entertaining effect but there are some which sadly fall short. It’s not enough to use the right buzzwords on social media; horrific, terrible, heinous, we have to demonstrate in our content that we understand that we are dealing with real human life and suffering. We have an obligation to understand that. If we don’t then we shouldn’t be creating true crime for entertainment. It’s that’s simple.

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