This story was originally published on September 30, 2022.
True crime media takes many forms: podcasts, books, movies, limited series and retellings in videos on YouTube, among other things.
Popular podcasts such as “My Favorite Murder,” “Crime Junkie” and “Serial” cover crimes, victims and perpetrators, and seek to package these tragic tales for listeners.
The genre has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, spurring an uptick in movies and TV shows portraying both infamous and little-known crimes.
After years of consuming true crime media, I’ve begun to look deeper at the actual effects these productions have on the families of victims and the victims themselves.
Is true crime media immoral?
One salient question true crime critics bring forward is whether or not the content is offensive or otherwise hurtful to the families of victims.
In August 2021, 22-year-old Gabby Petito was documenting her roadtrip with partner Brian Laundrie on Instagram when she went missing. Her disappearance was covered extensively in the media until her remains and those of her murderer and boyfriend were found a month later.
Just a year later, Petito’s story is being made into a movie by Lifetime as a part of its Stop Violence Against Women campaign. However, I wonder if it would have been more effective to uplift unknown stories rather than capitalize on a viral case.
Petito’s story is already well-known and, unfortunately, this movie will not do anything to help her — nor will it put any pressure on the systems that allowed for the crimes against her to be committed.
Similarly, FX’s production of “Under the Banner of Heaven” earlier this year poured salt on the decades-old wounds of Brenda Lafferty’s family.
Brenda Lafferty was just 24 when she and her 15-month-old daughter were brutally murdered by her brothers-in-law in 1984. Their murders are true crime lore, continually revisited and reimagined for entertainment purposes.
Lafferty’s sister Sharon Wright Weeks acknowledges that the show’s writer, Dustin Lance Black, had the right to do what he pleased with the production, though she herself did not relish the idea of watching her sister’s tragedy again.
In an interview with the Deseret News, Weeks said, “I felt a heavy feeling that my sister was going to be murdered all over again on Tuesday, April 28, at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”
Even more recently, Netflix released a new biopic about Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who raped and murdered 17 boys and men from 1978 to 1991 (mostly poor people of color, as it has been suspected they were less likely to be investigated seriously) — and cannibalized at least some of them.
Despite there being multitudinous pieces on him already, Netflix reimagined his crimes in “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
I have to ask — what more do we need to learn about Dahmer that hasn’t already been made public? Why must we put the victims’ families through the trauma of reliving their loved ones’ murders?
According to reporting by Vox, nobody involved with the show discussed the production with the victims’ family members.
Rita Isbell — the sister of one of Dahmer’s victims, Errol Lindsey — told Insider, “the victims have children and grandchildren.” She continued, “If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless. It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy. That’s just greed.”
Isbell makes the point that critics of true crime media are rehashing: whether the producers intend to or not, this genre of entertainment generally exploits victims and retraumatizes their families.
On Jan. 10, 2023, Evan Peters won a Golden Globe for his performance in “Dahmer —Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story”. Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes — whose 1991 murder was covered in the series — expressed her outrage over Peters’ win.
Hughes told TMZ, “There’s a lot of sick people around the world, and people winning acting roles from playing killers keeps the obsession going and this makes sick people thrive on the fame.”
In his speech, Peters said that the show was difficult to make and difficult to watch after thanking his family, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Ryan Murphy, Netflix, the post-production team, the cast, the crew and “most importantly”, the show’s viewers.
Peters didn’t thank or acknowledge the victims or their families in his speech.
In a 2021 article, Mashable explores the reality that survivors, victims and their families face in the age of true crime entertainment.
Survivor and victim advocate Patricia Wenskunas told Mashable that she considers her ability to share her story with fellow survivors a “blessing and a gift.”
Sharing her story as a part of the true crime genre, however, is a different beast. She is cautious about presenting her story as merely a narrative for people to listen to, saying, “What happened to me is not ‘a story.’ It’s my life.”
As is summed up in Study Breaks magazine, “The lines between ethical and unethical true crime content often mirror the lines between informative and exploitative content.”
That’s the line that every piece of media in this genre toes. According to victim advocates, survivors and their families, media more often than not falls to the exploitative side.
Are any true crime productions beneficial?
Fortunately, there are redeemable pieces of victim-centered storytelling in the sea of exploitative content. Here are a few examples.
- The Vanished: The creators of this podcast opt for requests for coverage from the families of missing persons. They include prescient interviews and allow the people fighting to find their lost loved ones to tell their stories rather than rope in listeners with gore and suspenseful storytelling. Their episodes highlight systemic failings and help the family members gain momentum in their efforts.
- The Fall-Line: This podcast specializes in similar endeavors and seeks to uplift professionals fighting to solve cases and who contribute their expertise to helping better the system.
- Girl in the Picture (TW: sexual assault, domestic violence): This documentary raises all of the right questions and portrays the victim’s story through the lens of the people that loved her. Hard to watch at times, it also acts as a call to action for people who see something suspicious going on in a child’s home. The film also highlights the efforts made by the people who loved the victim to bring her justice.
- Athlete A (TW: heavy discussion of sexual assault): The film details the abuse by Larry Nassar on many female Olympic gymnasts over a period of years. The film doesn’t share scenes of abuse for viewers to watch in horror; instead, it centers on the athletes and allows them to tell their own stories, describing all of the ways in which they were failed by higher bodies of authority as well as the damage the abuse caused in their lives.
Disclaimer: The above list is not all-inclusive. It is merely a starting point for more ethical true crime production and consumption. I also do not claim to be an expert in ethics or true crime.