Is there a correct way to cover True Crime?

5 Mins read

[Content warning]

With the sheer variety of true crime content out there, in an increasingly aware world, the drawbacks of the genre are now becoming apparent.

Documentaries, re-enactments, podcasts, YouTube videos: name a platform and you can almost instantly find true crime content on there.

One of the top podcasts in the genre, Crime Junkie, has been downloaded 500 million times since its creation – clearly, a whole lot of people engage with the content.

With the sheer volume of true crime stories being told, it’s inevitable that some iterations will arguably go too far as content creators try to draw in as many people as possible.

Countless recreations and ‘storytimes’ are sensationalised and go into every gory detail of a crime with little consideration given to the victims and those close to them.

The cult of the serial killer is no secret. Infamous murderers have superfans, creating edits of their favourite killer and fantasising about their looks, mannerisms and values. Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most fawned-over.

2022 biopic Dahmer by Ryan Murphy brought these doting fans back out of the woodwork. The series depicted Dahmer’s most vile work, from luring in vulnerable people to targeted racist attacks to the killings themselves.

Whilst his fans gloated about their desensitisation to the events, the biopic’s reception was polarising, to say the least.

Said to be exploitative, re-traumatising, overly intimate, the show ticked all the boxes in terms of a controversial piece of true crime content.

Families of the victims have spoken out against the portrayal and inclusion of graphic and brutal deaths that are very personal to them, being recreated in a blockbuster-style programme made for an entertainment streaming platform.

True Crime survey showing audience consumption habits.

Sin Tisavly is a Cambodian true crime influencer who runs the account Basic Instinct on YouTube. She described herself as the “very first true crime YouTuber in [her] country” and regularly posts videos focusing on prolific cases, sometimes honing in on issues local to her.

When asked about docu-drama series such as Dahmer, she mentioned it was a good series for people to get to know about the case. She also admitted they have their drawbacks.

“It was difficult to digest when they solely focused on [the killer],” Sin explained. “I would somehow agree if people say this is a form of glorification.”

She also identified how important it is to keep the case in the producers’ best interests. Will the content bring some form of peace or closure to the victims? Are the victims gaining anything from the content being produced? Is there any important information on the subject?

Another type of true crime content to consider is the makeup-true-crime hybrid. Over the recent years, there has been outstanding reception to influencers doing their make-up and showing their beauty routine, whilst talking about true crime cases.

On the whole, it’s been very well received, with creators such as Bailey Sarian reaching more than seven million followers with this type of content. It can be seen as a laidback way of telling stories of caution.

There are some concerns about using this type of content to switch off after a long day. Psychologist Thema Bryant suggested that “if your idea of relaxing before you go to sleep is watching three episodes of Law & Order, I would encourage you to think about ‘Why is trauma relaxing to me?’.”

Which raises a questions about whether this type of content is prolonging our own troubles?

We posted a survey on Instagram about true crime consumption habits, to which 16 people responded. Of these 14 consumed true crime content anywhere from daily to monthly. One person said that they rarely watched it anymore as it had a negative impact on them.

SIn Tisavly, on the other hand, feels that true crime content is beneficial to her country in particular. She explained that as it didn’t really exist nationally before, there was a lot of victim blaming and ignorance around the topic, which she has slowly seen change as the genre exploded in popularity.

“I just feel like it is my responsibility to educate my viewers and hope that they, especially the youth, would listen and understand to change the way we think”.

Consuming this type of content would definitely make the audience more aware, to say the least. Many docu-series are often binge-watched as a form of creepy entertainment or out of morbid curiosity – take Tiger King as an example.

During the pandemic millions of people tuned in to see the latest happenings of Joe Exotic, and ponder on whether Carole Baskin really fed her late husband to the tigers.

Another YouTube channel, Beyond Evil, has a particularly unique way of creating true crime content. Instead of having an on-screen narrator, the visuals only comprise of footage from the case, or related stock photos and videos.

This means those who are watching are watching for the case itself, and it is not necessarily a persona-driven channel. We spoke to Rich, the person behind the channel, about his choices and processes for creating his videos.

Rich explained his deep involvement with the “brick-and-mortar” side of the cases in order to gain a well-rounded view of the video he is about to create.

Body-cam footage, court records, witness accounts and interrogation film are just a handful of the material he dives into as preparation and material gathering. He is also passionate about remaining journalistically professional and sticks to his personal set of ethics.

Children are never named in Beyond Evil’s videos, whether that be victim or aggressor. “Children shouldn’t have to carry around the scars they accumulate as it is, and we should not make sure they are publicly branded for them.”

Living victims of sexual assault are also unnamed, and Rich does not create videos focusing on school shootings, so as not to glorify them.

One of Beyond Evil's most popular videos focusing on Tatsuya Ichihashi. This shows Rich turning the focus away from victims to avoid exploitation.
One of Beyond Evil’s most popular videos focusing on Tatsuya Ichihashi. This turns the focus away from victims to avoid exploitation [YouTube]

Starting out as a journalist in a small-town newspaper, Rich was sent out to cover a myriad of stories. His editor would always remind him that while he is to report of these events, he needs to take other people’s feelings and situations into account. “It was my duty to make sure they never lost their dignity as well. I hold that
to this day.”

When talking about society’s fascination with true crime, as a fan and creator himself, he explained: “I hate to say it, but there has always been an interest in this, probably all the way back to the days we huddled in caves and gathered around that magical-seeming fire.”

He’s not wrong. The first ever true crime magazine, True Detective, was founded in 1924. By the 30s and 40s, it was selling around two million copies a month.

As the amount of people consuming true crime content booms, so will the creators, pushing out more and more for their fans to interact with. While some subgenres of true crime will be seen as controversial, the numbers say enough – people will still find it entertaining or informative.

As Sin Tisavly of Basic Instinct explains many pieces of media in the genre could be described as “just a creator incorporating two hobbies to make content.”

It is up to the individual whether that aligns with their morals or not. However she believes “creators need to realise that doing crime videos is not just a hobby, it also comes with a responsibility, like you are a messenger from the victims to the world.”

Whether you are looking into cold cases, educating yourself on a case, or simply looking for something to relax to, true crime is a cover-all-bases piece of media. However, as more people are questioning their morals, it’s unclear on what the future of true crime will be.

In Sin’s opinion: “The best way to figure out the dilemma of whether what you do is insensitive or not is to ask the victims family, or how would you feel if someone did it to you?”

Featured image: AI-generated collage via Canva.

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