Does ethical true crime exist? 

True crime, and the public’s fascination with it, is not exactly a new thing — just look at the popularity of Truman Capote’s 1966 novel “In Cold Blood,” which is often used (with the occasional attempted ban) in high school curriculums. Illustration by Steven Coleman/The Daily Campus.

True crime, and the public’s fascination with it, is not exactly a new thing — just look at the popularity of Truman Capote’s 1966 novel “In Cold Blood,” which is often used (with the occasional attempted ban) in high school curriculums. 

But recently, true crime seems to have particularly taken off in popularity — propelled by the viral nature of TikTok and similar social media platforms. Netflix seems to be pumping out docuseries after docuseries, even branching into more narrative versions of true crime stories that take some creative liberties with the facts of the case. Recent titles include “Making a Murderer,” “The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness” or “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.” If listening instead of watching is more your style, the podcast “Crime Junkie,” which debuted in 2017, provides a weekly glimpse for listeners into cases of murder, missing persons, and serial killers. In fact, the recent increase in true crime popularity is evident in the Hulu show “Only Murders in the Building,” the premise of which surrounds three strangers “with a shared interest in true crime podcasts.” 

I have to admit, I have certainly watched my fair share of true crime docuseries. It can be really interesting — that’s why these things become so popular! But we need to be careful, and avoid enabling a so-called “true crime addiction.” 

“True crime,” if you couldn’t figure it out from the pretty obvious name, is true. These stories that we consume so casually are the stories of real people, who often still have relatives and friends devastated on a daily basis by their tragic stories, even years later. It’s not just entertainment — it’s real life. We should therefore keep proceeding carefully and respectfully at the forefront of our minds. 

But what does that mean, exactly? 

If we want to consume true crime media ethically, we shouldn’t watch TikToks about sensationalized brutal murders, nor the docuseries that focus on fictionalizing and humanizing cruel murderers to large audiences. Focus on the media that contains nuance, and focus on the true crime content that considers victims’ families first. Think: If you were the family member of a victim in a “popular” true crime, and you were scrolling on TikTok, would you not be at least a little upset to see crime scene photos from your relative’s case on an app meant for fun? Further, be sure to check your sources. Misinformation runs rampant nowadays, and spreading such misinformation regarding true crime cases does not benefit anyone. 

Further, we shouldn’t let our browsing cross the line into an “addiction,” as we often say so colloquially. This can make the line between a natural human interest or fascination with the macabre and a harmful obsession pretty blurry. We naturally want to know about twisted crimes and those that commit them, but that doesn’t mean we should idolize or deify those involved — something that feeding into a true crime “addiction” can contribute to, even if accidentally. 

Though some of this sensationalization can be purposeful, and all the more harmful — remember the “Ted Bundy is hot” discourse on Twitter in 2019 that led to Netflix tweeting “I’ve seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service – almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers”? Yeah, unfortunately I do too. While, to give the Twitter users the benefit of the doubt, these tweets calling Ted Bundy hot were probably meant as jokes or memes, they inflict real harm to the families of victims. 

Similarly, just searching for “Ted Bundy” on Etsy brings up a vast amount of products that come across as poor taste, to say the least, including t-shirts with his mugshot on it, a blanket featuring him and many other serial killers and a mug that says “Wouldn’t be caught dead with Ted.” Sure, you could say I’m being overly sensitive, or that I can’t take a joke, but products like these are dangerous; they glorify aspects of true crime to the point of being something to joke about, somehow forgetting or disregarding altogether the fact that these stories are true. Real people were and continue to be harmed by these crimes. 

Not all true crime is bad. But some of the true crime content out there certainly does not put victims and their families first, which is harmful. If you want to watch a thoughtfully-made documentary that points out police mishandling of a true crime case, while considering the thoughts and feelings of the families of victims, perhaps even raising awareness regarding cold cases, go ahead. And as I mentioned, our true crime content should put victims first — though that can be hard to come by. Empathetic storytelling is difficult, and sensationalization sells extremely well. But at the very least, retelling true crime stories with input and consent from victims and their families is a must. 

As with most things, there’s potential for good here. But unfortunately, the internet always tends to take things too far in the wrong direction. Don’t be one to contribute to this. 

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