It’s called true crime — we must not forget the reality

There has always been a morbid yet deeply human fascination with true crime among the general population. Many can’t help but wonder: what drives a human to commit such heinous acts? With the rise of social media, platforms spread stories, many of which become overly sensationalized and exploitative. Due to the sensitive subject matter, platforms should move away from such practices and instead work in a productive manner that provides proper respect and support to the victims, families and investigators involved.

Many of these reports are dramatized. Coverage — varying from podcasts to TV shows and documentaries to social media — turns true crime accounts into fantastical mysteries. This encourages viewers to weave information into their own conclusion, according to law professor Patricia Bryan, the author of an article on the subject published at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the audience, the opportunity to try and solve the murder on their own feeds into the human need for a challenge, sparking engagement for the piece of media.

When true crime is presented in this exaggerated manner, it becomes a narrative. This is not harmful in and of itself — it becomes an issue when readers lose touch with the fact that the people they are speculating about are real human beings, notfictional characters. As people are encouraged to figure out the murderer themselves in these true crime stories, oftentimes the public comes to a particular consensus on who they suspect. Unlike the justice system, the general public is not obligated to view individuals as innocent until proven guilty, allowing virtual dogpiling on the matter. Rather than helping obtain justice, this practice only hinders the investigation and harms the livelihood of potentially innocent people by turning them into social pariahs.

Additionally, when covering such a sensitive issue, how the coverage affects victims and their families must be prioritized over the entertainment value of a piece.

It is first important to consider whether the family would appreciate additional coverage on the issue in the first place. While many are strong advocates for increased action on cases and do desire coverage, there are also families who do not wish to pique the public’s interest and would only be retraumatized by the constant exposure caused by media attention.

One example where media coverage favored profit over the well-being of the victims’ family is the 2022 Netflix series “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” The show’s creator moved on with production despite not getting responses to interview requests from any of the victim’s friends or family members, according to an article in The Guardian.

After the show’s release, many of those relatives of the victims have spoken out against it. Among the relatives are Eric Perry, the cousin of victim Errol Lindsey, who wrote on X that the show retraumatized all those involved, and Rita Isbell, Lindsey’s sister, who said the show was “harsh and careless.”

In this case, not only did the show harm those directly impacted by the murders, but it had no productive value to the case. Dahmer had already been apprehended by authorities in 1991, decades before the release of the drama. If a piece of media does not serve to further the investigation or support the victims and their families, it has no value to society and in most cases, only furthers the hurt caused by the crimes in the first place.

This is not to say coverage of true crime cases is inherently harmful. In actuality, it can be helpful to the people involved and to the investigation, if done with sensitivity and integrity. For instance, when a crime is broadcast, it is more likely to reach those who might have valuable information. In turn, they may send anonymous tips to the police or in other ways aid the investigation.

Additionally, by drawing out new information and providing the incentive of public pressure, media attention can be a helpful tool in reigniting cold cases, giving forgotten victims a chance at justice.

Lastly, the media’s support for the affected family and community can lead to increased funding and overall support for the investigation and potential prosecution.

Media platforms can encourage this type of positive change by focusing on being voices for the families, survivors and investigators. By spreading factual data released by authorities and encouraging their audiences to call in tips if they have valuable information, the investigation can be aided. Additionally, these platforms can provide links to where audiences can contribute to fundraisers that help fund both current and cold cases, whether on an individual basis or a more general one.

While sensationalist coverage of true crime can be a hindrance to the case and harm the people involved, when done right, coverage that is sensitive and wanted by those close to the case has the potential to support impacted communities and for justice to be served.

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