“Dateline” started its 30th season on Friday. It’s the longest running series on NBC prime-time and one of the best known true crime programs in America.
True crime is an extraordinarily popular genre with a long history. The English essayist Thomas De Quincey called the true-crime enthusiasts of the early 1800s “murder-fanciers,” writing in a 1827 satirical essay, “Every fresh atrocity of that class, which the police annals of Europe bring up, they meet and criticize as they would a picture, statue or other work of art.”
Today, true crime continues to be popular, especially among women. And, looking at the podcasts I’m subscribed to and the documentaries I watch, it appears that true crime is also especially popular with me.
I read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” one of the most famous works of true crime writing, when I was a freshman in high school. If I am listening to a podcast, it is probably about crime. If I am reading a book, it is probably about crime. (Nazi Germany is another obsession of mine, but that’s another story for another time.) I am deeply, hopelessly fascinated by stories about crime and criminals.
But I also have guilt about being a “murder-fancier.”
Keith Morrison seems to relate. I spoke to the well-known correspondent for “Dateline” — who became even better known after an SNL sketch a decade ago that played up the voyeurism inherent to the genre — and told him that it felt weird to enjoy “Dateline” and the podcasts he’s hosted that focus on complex stories of betrayal, deceit and, yes, murder.
“It’s weird to say you love doing them,” he said. “They’re fascinating, and terrible at the same time.”
Fascinating, terrible and often … misleading. The genre creates a distorted picture of crime in America, with stories that tend to focus on crimes committed against white people, particularly young white women (for example, the recent obsession with the horrifying, saddening Gabby Petito case). True crime also often centers on serial killers, who are extremely rare, and their stories often involve bad policing.
The focus on exceptional cases comes at the expense of attention on a more common problem: those who get away with their crimes because they kill people who were sex workers, homeless or runaway kids fleeing violent homes and maybe never reported missing by their families.
And true crime is often uncritical of a heavily punitive judicial system, one in which the boundaries between right and wrong are far clearer than they are in real life, one in which the easy answer is to sentence the villain to life in prison or to the death penalty.
As the journalist Rachelle Hampton told The Appeal’s Elon Green back in 2020, true crime “frames the justice system as inherently just, and it frames long prison sentences as something to aspire toward.”
True crime may be based in reality, but it portrays a fictitious world, where every Uber driver is going to kill you, every colleague is a secret murderer, and the landscape of America is far more violent than it actually is. (It is perhaps unsurprising that I heard an ad for a security system during an episode of one of my favorite true crime podcasts on a recent morning.)
But the makers of true crime are responding to audience demand — an audience of which I am a part. When I listen to a true crime podcast or read books about the Manson Family murders, I am, for my enjoyment, listening to people’s worst moments.
On my long runs, or while I wait for a train, I listen to true crime podcasts with titles like “Serial Killers,” “Crime Junkie” and “Medical Murders,” engrossed in the stories of the worst possible people committing the worst possible acts for my own entertainment. I want the crimes to be brutal, I want the case to be complex, even labyrinthine, and then I want to take off my headphones and go on with my day.
But for the families of the people touched by these horrific crimes, the stories of what happened to their loved ones never really end. In an interview with Time magazine, Rosalee Clark, a woman based in Australia whose brother, stepfather and mother were brutally murdered in 2014, said, “We’re treated as fodder. We’re fuel for people’s fascination.”
In true crime, the victims can recede into the background, while the people who killed them are given primacy. Filmmakers make movies about serial killers and the people who hunt them — but rarely do we see the stories of the people they killed: what their lives were like, what their dreams for the future were, the families they loved.
I asked Morrison how he is able to speak to people in their darkest moments. He told me that when he was a young reporter, an editor asked him to interview the widow of a crossing guard who was hit by a car and killed. He came “perilously close” to quitting. “The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to land in on somebody in the moment of her most intense grief and ask all these invasive questions.”
But he did it, and has done it hundreds of times since.
“The people at the heart of the story are going through the worst thing they’ll ever go through. And they sit with me and they reveal things about their lives, things that they probably wouldn’t even tell their close friends. And they’re talking about them on television. And it’s always been a surprise to me, it’s still a surprise to me,” he says.
“It’s a privilege and it’s slightly disturbing at the same time.”
Over the last few years, the genre of true crime has shifted. I’ve noticed that the podcasts I listen to are showing an increasing willingness to center non-white victims and recognize the very real failures of the criminal justice system. Non-white people are more likely to be victims of violent crime, and more likely to experience the very worst of the justice system. Acknowledging that reality, rather than focusing exclusively on the visceral but rare, seems like a worthwhile step.
I still find so much wrong with true crime. But I continue to indulge. I don’t really have an answer for why, other than my fascination of how and why humans do very bad things to other humans. Yet I do keep in mind that the victims of those crimes, and those who commit them, are people, too.
I asked Morrison what his advice would be to journalists or writers or podcasters looking to tell the stories of true crime, but what he told me would apply to anyone who engages with true crime, including myself.
“The main advice would be not to forget that these are human beings at the heart of this. Whether somebody who has done a bad thing, you know they were probably just like you or me, a regular person, up until the moment when suddenly they weren’t. And they committed an act, for whatever reason, which caused them to sort of step outside the human experience. I think it’s really important, if you’re in the business of covering stories about these things, to be very careful to be respectful of the people involved and to understand, but not to judge.”
If you have thoughts on true crime, or on anything else, please send me a note at Coastonfirstname.lastname@example.org.