Is Our True-Crime Obsession Doing More Harm Than Good?
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To properly celebrate spooky season, our Opinion debate podcast, “The Argument,” took on the question of just how guilty the host, Jane Coaston, should feel about her guilty pleasure, the nonfiction genre of true crime. Today’s edition of Debatable is written by Phoebe Lett, who helped produce the episode.
Take a look at the most popular podcasts or the most-watched documentaries on Netflix, and you might notice a pattern: A lot are about murder. Over the past few years, true crime — that once niche genre of storytelling that spins real-life crimes into entertainment — has become a national obsession.
But is all this true-crime content, and its tendency to romanticize the art of the scam and to sensationalize grisly murder, bad for us? Or does the genre shine a light on the horrors visited on society’s vulnerable and the flaws of America’s criminal justice system?
These are some of the questions I asked when I set out to find experts, enthusiasts and critics to debate with our self-professed true crime fanatic, Jane Coaston, on our latest episode of “The Argument.” Here’s what they had to say.
The rise of true crime
In the American context, many point to Truman Capote’s journalistically questionable “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood,” as the origin of the modern true-crime era, and the hit 2014 podcast “Serial” as the most proximate cause for the genre’s current boom. But the historian Joy Wiltenburg says the public has been fascinated by crime stories for centuries.
Before the Enlightenment, many thought human nature was inherently depraved and the most sinister threat was the devil inside you, not an assailant around the corner. But there has long been a thrill to witness morally transgressive behavior and a desire to protect oneself from harm.
What distinguishes contemporary true crime is its sheer ubiquity: Entire cable channels and an endless churn of documentaries and podcasts tackle every angle and flavor of crime and criminal, while social media offers fans a way to participate.
Consider the case of Gabrielle Petito, the 22-year-old who disappeared while on a road trip with her fiancé, prompting a torrent of media coverage that rarely happens for the hundreds of thousands of other people reported missing each year in the United States. It became “the latest social media whodunit,” as online armchair detectives tried to solve the case themselves — and one may have ended up helping to locate her remains.
Is all this attention to true crime ‘rotting our brains’?
The writer and stabbing survivor Emma Berquist thinks so. In a recent Gawker essay, Berquist argued that the genre makes women — who research suggests account for the bulk of true crime’s audience — inappropriately paranoid, comparing the way true crime primes aficionados for danger to how Fox News raises “our grandparents’ blood pressure, keeping them in a perpetual state of fear about roving gangs of MS-13.”
She points out that, with the exception of the rise in murders since the Covid pandemic, major crime has been steadily decreasing for decades. “Being in that state of sort of hyper-awareness, especially right now when we’re already so divided and distrustful of one another, I don’t think it’s healthy,” Berquist told me.
Berquist also fears that true crime’s entertainment value obscures the harm it can do to real people by inspiring vigilantism, citing Petito’s case: “I don’t think it’s a normal thing to comb through a murder victim’s Instagram. That’s such a violation.”
And when fans feel deputized to solve crimes, due process can become a secondary concern. With Petito, for example, the court of public opinion started to convict her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, long before the “true” story could be told by anyone who knew what happened.
“We’re a nation of crime experts now,” Jean Murley, a true-crime scholar at Queensborough Community College, told The New Yorker this month. After social media users rallied behind hashtags inculpating Laundrie, he disappeared, and has since been found dead — the cause inconclusive.
Critics of the genre also say it entrenches the flaws of America’s criminal justice system. Even though men of color are disproportionately the victims of violent crime, true crime retains an outsize focus on violence against white women. Lindsey Webb, a criminal defense lawyer and law professor, drew a line to that focus from older “danger narratives” that used white female victimhood to cast people of color as inherently criminal.
Today’s true-crime narratives have mostly white male perpetrators, but Webb still sees them as buttressing the prison system that expanded in the 1970s and has since made the United States the world leader in incarcerating its own population, with Black Americans imprisoned at nearly five times the rate of whites.
“We can both see the power of the narrative and get why this is compelling to listen to, and also say, ‘Wait a second, what are we perpetuating here?’” Webb told me.
In defense of true crime
Like all genres of storytelling, there is good and bad true crime. The culture critic Emily VanDerWerff held up Netflix’s “Tiger King” as an example of the latter: “It’s very much like, ‘Oh hello, here’s some people who live outside the socioeconomic standard that we think of in coastal America. Let’s gawk at the yokels,’” she told me. “I don’t know how useful that is, how artistically satisfying or journalistically satisfying that is.”
But the genre to which “Tiger King” belongs also includes the “In the Dark” podcast, which investigates the failures of law enforcement and miscarriages of justice. Nearly everyone I talked to praised it as a paragon of the genre, both aesthetically and journalistically; VanDerWerff called it “one of the best acts of journalism in the last 10 years.”
By shining a light on the criminal justice system in this way, some argue true crime has powerful reformative potential. “I think true crime has been a net positive for future defendants or existing defendants because the system is getting a lot of pressure because of what is being exposed,” Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and the host of the true-crime podcast “Undisclosed,” said on “The Argument.” “What are the laws that protect officers from accountability that basically make the entire system opaque?”
That true crime appeals primarily to women is one reason Chaudry says it’s unfairly tarred. “I always wonder is that the reason we get the most criticism of this genre, like romance,” Chaudry said. “Is it about the consumer and not about the content that’s really the target of the criticism?”
Just as some true-crime stories could be criticized for stoking paranoia, others could be praised for helping women to live in a society that is still violently misogynistic. “Some people learn how to protect themselves, situations to avoid,” Dawn Cecil, a professor of criminology, told me. “For other people, it helps them deal with their trauma.”
Where does true crime go from here?
After the social unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder, podcasts tried — sometimes clumsily — to confront the blind spots of their brands and audiences “after years of telling stories largely about white victims, based on uncritical accounts of police and prosecutors,” P.E. Moskowitz, a writer and self-professed true-crime addict, wrote in Mother Jones last year.
Moskowitz told me about the top charting podcast “Crime Junkie”: “The two hosts who started much more, ‘Rah rah, the cops always solve everything,’ now do entire episodes about how queer people are completely overlooked by the justice system, or how people of color are unfairly targeted by police, who let the real suspects get away.”
The sensationalism around Petito’s case also spurred a conversation about “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by the journalist Gwen Ifill to describe the outsize media attention given in particular to mainly younger, able-bodied white American women who disappear.
Elon Green, a writer who has explored “The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime,” sees “small shifts on the margins” of the genre. “The fact that people are even asking these questions and talking about Missing White Woman Syndrome is new,” Green said. “I think it’s actually refreshing that people are questioning the nature of the racial aspects of crime coverage.”
What do you think of true crime and the ethics of the genre? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“True Crime, Keith Morrison and Me” [The New York Times]
“True crime always risks exploitation. But it can still make the world a better place.” [The Washington Post]
“True-Crime Favorites From New York Times Critics and Staff” [The New York Times]