True-Crime Ethics

Where is the line?

Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

Article originally posted on Medium

In December 2015, not all break room discussions were about last-minute shopping and who wants to volunteer to decorate the office. Many people debated murder, questionable police tactics, and whether Steven Avery or Brandon Dassey should be in prison for the murder of Theresa Halbach.

Both seasoned true-crime fans and television prudes alike couldn’t get enough of the popular Netflix series, Making a Murderer. According to Business Insider, the show reached 2.3 million viewers within the first week.

Sorry Ralphy, there’s always next year.

True-crime continues to soar with most streaming networks putting out content regularly such as HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, based on Michelle McNamara’s 2018 book by the same name, which thoroughly investigates the crimes of the Golden State Killer during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

At the time of this writing, the relaunch of the popular 1980s docuseries Unsolved Mysteries was the #1 most-watched program on Netflix.

People wanted their MTV in the ‘90s; now, they want their true-crime.

Despite the growing popularity between streaming services, some people can’t get into it as they feel it’s unethical. Some say it’s not right to be entertained with true accounts of awful crimes as it exploits victims and their families.

It is true that authors, filmmakers, and podcast hosts make money off of focusing on true stories, but does doing so make every film, TV show, or book unethical if it covers a true story? Are we sensationalizing criminals for entertainment, or is there another side of the story?

First, it’s important to define what true-crime is and what its intentions are.

After a quick check, true-crime is “anything based on or describing an actual crime.” This definition is so broad that it’s difficult to label true-crime as moral or not in one stroke of the brush.

While true-crime seems to have grown in popularity recently, it certainly didn’t start with streaming services or TV. By the aforementioned definition, published true-crime can be found as early as the 1600s; a book titled The Book of Swindlesby Zhang Yingyucirculated in China and is said to have kept people in the know on current fraud and other crimes.

Beneficial information to have in an age of limited communication and wondering shysters selling snake oil.

CBS broadcasted the radio show Crime Classics in the 1950s, which featured historical events such as presidential assassinations and the case of Bathsheba Spooner, the first female to be convicted and executed for murder after the Declaration of Independence, in 1778.

It was her husband by the way.

Until relatively recently, with the advent of radio, film, and TV, much of the origin of true-crime was simply news, as some of it still is. Once these mediums were structured with actors, there was a shift to provide more entertainment.

Looking at this timeline, we can‘t define true-crime in one specific type of media, but we can see a spectrum where stories can land; one end is the news, and the other being entertainment.

A piece on the evening news about a robbery wouldn’t be “true-crime” by modern standards. It’s just the news. Conversely, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre wouldn’t fit either, even if the main character is loosely based on the serial killer Ed Gein.

By taking a look at the True-Crime category on a streaming service, or podcast directory, we see content that bridges information and entertainment by varying degrees.

As the media and entertainment industry has become more involved in non-fictional crime documentation during the Information Age, we start to see where ethical violations come into play.

How this happens depends on many factors such as the case, medium, and most notably, the goals of the producers.

Many cases start with a 911 call or missing person report, and if it’s a compelling story, it ends up in the local paper or 10 o’clock news. Even insignificant cases such as vandalism are typically printed in the local papers police blotter.

As major stories gain popularity, news agencies may pass the story to their parent organization, where investigative journalists take over. The most popular and interesting stories might go further and be produced as documentaries on streaming services.

A recent example that illustrates this is the 2018 murders of Shanaan Watts and her two daughters, Celeste and Bella, in Frederick, CO. The case started with a missing persons call by Shanaan’s friend, and the local news quickly joined in to assist the family in getting the word out. Once the husband confessed to the murder of his family two days later, the story was covered by 20/20on ABC. Two years after that, the documentary American Murderer: The Family Next Door premiered on Netflix, which was in the top ten most-watched programs following the release.

The Netflix series Trial by Media features accounts where the news has a massive influence on cases and, arguably, their outcomes. One installment outlines the 1983 rape of a young woman in a New Haven, CT bar, Big Dans. Among the horrible events that make up the story, people scrutinized the local media for releasing the victim’s name when she requested anonymity from the start.

At the time, the case didn’t fall under the same category as “true-crime” as a modern genre. However, it was the first court proceeding to be broadcasted on live television, paving the way for courtroom broadcasting such as CourtTV.

Maybe the first trial to be televised shouldn’t have been focused on a victim who specifically didn’t want to be identified, let alone have her most personal nightmare be shown to families eating lunch across the nation.

Looking farther down the spectrum, there are other examples of true-crime, causing more harm than good. One such example is the TV documentary L.A. Detectives, which featured on-scene crime footage from 1998–2000. One of these cases in 1999 documented a drive-by shooting, which resulted in a fatality. The grandmother of the victim, Barbara Rockwell, arrived at the scene where police kept her from seeing the deceased, per protocol.

It wasn’t until about a year and a half later that Ms. Rockwell saw the show, which displayed her deceased grandson.

This blatant disregard is reckless and could have been avoided if the team responsible for producing the show bothered to include the victim’s family.

Stories like this give people a good reason to question the ethics of true-crime.

Entertainment based content is obviously more targeted to popcorn-munching horror fans seeking a thrill rather than amateur sleuths looking to get a new angle on a controversial case. These films can go anywhere from being an accurate representation to a stretch of the imagination to boost the story.

The 2019 Netflix original Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile received flak for sensationalizing the Ted Bundy story. Bundy confessed to 30 murders in the 1970s and is believed to have committed more. While the movie received high praise from some viewers, others say the film romanticizes Bundy’s popularity with the ladies by casting Zac Effron as the leading man, as Bundy is portrayed as a charmer. The thing is, that’s exactly how he lured his victims, so it’s actually very accurate.

Ted Bundy definitely attracted the ladies despite the heinous accusations. Even after convicted, people widely believed that Bundy would continue to correspond with women from behind bars until his execution in 1989.

When considering the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, the film takes liberties in the actual story to increase the thrill factor. According to an NPR article in 2009, biographer Jeff Guin says;

Well, the movie is wonderful entertainment, but it’s less than five percent historically accurate.

We see there have been examples of exploitation among the genre of true-crime, but by the same token, there are instances where shows have provided a direct influence on law enforcement and the courts for the better.

Americas Most Wanted was on the air from 1988 to 2013, hosted by John Walsh, whose six-year-old son was murdered in 1981, inspiring Walsh to dedicate the rest of his career seeking justice for both similar crimes and others. During its 35 years, Walsh and his team assisted law enforcement by apprehending 1,203 fugitives.

In the latest reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, the co-creator tells USA Today that they have received calls from people with tips within days of the showing.

In addition to putting people behind bars, true-crime has spotlighted cases where people in prison don’t deserve to be. The Netflix original The Innocence Files features cases that have fought wrongful convictions on appeal and were innocent. One such episode features Franky Carillo, who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned but was fortunately released after further review of witnesses.

The answer is no. True-crime as a whole isn’t about exploiting victims and their families for money and ratings. There are examples across the board where those telling the story don’t have the best interests of the victims at heart, and those people are in the business of either being the first to get the story out or make a profit on ratings and reviews.

Most respectable true-crime will fall somewhere between media and Hollywood, such as Investigation Discovery’s Homicide Hunterwhich chronicles the career of Colorado Springshomicide detective Joe Kenda.The popular podcast True Crime Garage thoroughly explains both well known and unheard-of cases while being respectful to the victims involved.

Whether we are being informed of scammers, local vandals, or law enforcement tracks killers, society needs true-crime. However, this must always be done with the victims and their rights first and foremost.

While we seek entertainment value in true-crime, it’s good to keep in mind that for most fans, this comes in the form of a desire to learn of the criminal justice field.

Stories of murder and court proceedings might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is important to keep stories alive, much in the way we study war, people, and history in general. As long as we can continue to do that with respect, we can expect the true-crime genre to thrive.

Cases and investigations mustn’t be hidden away from the public, where injustices go unnoticed on either side of the law.

As we haven’t found any law, punishment, or system to eradicate crime yet, we don’t expect any material shortage any time soon.

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By Greg

Hi, I’m Greg

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