The problem with true crime

As cooler weather approaches, many McGill students will replace evenings on a terrasse with evenings spent watching Netflix; they will store their bikes and begin spending bus rides listening to podcasts. These shifts raise an important issue: The increasing demand for true crime media, which promotes violence as a source of entertainment, often with little regard for victims. True crime media has become astoundingly popular in the last five years, and this is particularly true for college-age individuals like McGill students. Despite criticism, many people continue to tune into true crime media because of the thrill they provide.

In 2014, the true crime podcast Serial became the podcast to hit five million downloads on iTunes the fastest, a “flagship moment” for a genre that had previously been viewed as sensationalist and not-quite mainstream. In the five years since, true crime media has become incredibly popular, with Spotify listing over 100 different podcasts in its true crime category and Netflix churning out critically acclaimed docuseries and full-length films focusing on real life tragedies. Many of these are characterized as “highbrow” true crime, which satisfies consumers’ desire for drama while taking an investigative journalism approach, portraying true crime not as a guilty pleasure, but as a legitimate and intelligent genre.

Some of these shows are well-executed, exploring larger issues of justice and who is allowed access to it. On the other hand, the very nature of the genre makes it fundamentally flawed. True crime provides consumers with an adrenaline rush and feeling of suspense that keeps them hooked on the genre, and the drive to create addictive content can be directly opposed to the objectivity required for credible journalism. Making a Murderer, a hugely popular Netflix-produced true crime miniseries, has been criticized for its strategic omissions in attempts to prove the accused’s innocence, framing the show as a quest for justice while lacking neutrality. 

Even more worrying are the fans that are eager to try and impose justice themselves and take part in investigating as if it were a game, as is evidenced by multiple Facebook pages for these communities. It’s easy for these shows to compose a certain narrative because they aren’t supposed to be sources of news, but rather sources of entertainment. This gives them a certain license to stretch the truth, but the contortion of someone’s real and painful experiences into a compelling ‘whodunit’ is disrespectful to victims and their families.

Experts have found a variety of reasons for true crime obsessions. Humans have evolved to pay attention to things that can hurt us, and feel a sense of relief when we remain unscathed, even if there is no imminent danger. This makes true crime both compelling and somewhat rewarding. Trying to solve true crime mysteries satisfies our need for solutions, providing us with proxy closure for all the problems in our environment—like mass shootings, terrorism, and a flawed justice systemthat we cannot solve. Additionally, the consumption of true crime can subconsciously act as a preventative measure for people, especially women. Being able to detect traits or patterns of killers seems like a way to avoid them, and avoid being murdered.

Despite the natural reasons for our attraction to true crime, we shouldn’t let psychology excuse a lack of empathy and respect. Highbrow true crime obscures its shock value with intellect, so it is crucial that consumers make a conscious effort to face their attraction to violence and reflect on its dehumanizing effects. Increased exposure to violence can decrease our sensitivity to it, and when stories and images of violence are so proliferous in the news, any immunity to it is an implicit acceptance of its place in society. There is no way to be an informed citizen without being occasionally exposed to images and stories of violence and evil, but they should not be something that’s actively sought out for enjoyment. 

Whether a consumer indulges in true crime to avoid harm, simplify a more complicated world, or just for a thrill, doing so requires a degree of self-awareness. There is no reason to view violence and injustice with anything but an empathetic eye, so make sure that the next time you sit down to unwind from midterms with a true crime show, you see it for what it is: A narrative of real-life suffering for your entertainment.

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