The true crime industry has been significantly on the rise over the past decade. However, the genre has been criticized for causing prolonged harm to victims’ families, reinforcing the carceral state, and increasing fear of crime without analyzing the shortcomings of the criminal justice system or providing ongoing support for victims. Instead of simply consuming true crime stories to become amateur detectives or to escape the monotony of everyday life, Americans interested in this genre should redirect their focus to advocacy.
An interest in reading about violent crimes can be traced back as early as the 16th century in Great Britain when morally ambiguous leaflets were consumed by the literate artisan class and above. However, the advent of the tabloid magazine in the Roaring 20s packaged true crime stories into “cheap, handheld entertainment,” making the genre more accessible to the masses. Today, true crime content exists across virtually all platforms, from TV shows to documentaries to podcasts, and motivations for consuming true crime content are varied. Psychologists have concluded that in general, humans “are inclined to scrutinize threats to their own survival” whether they have previously survived a violent crime or hope to better prepare themselves against potential future dangers. One common critique of true crime is that it overinflates our perception of crime. True crime critics argue that too much consumption of this content damages the human psyche and leads us to live in a constant state of paranoia, while in reality major crime has been mostly decreasing for the past 18 years. Others point to the effects on victims whose (sometimes decades-old) stories are retold, because “true crime, as a genre, has a rather sordid reputation of exploiting people’s very pain to gain readers or viewers.”
One of the most popular narratives in true crime stories—which remains prevalent today—is missing white woman syndrome. White women have been presented as ideal victims throughout American history, and their stories have been amplified to incite fear of other racial and ethnic groups. In the 18th century, captivity narratives spoke of white women who were abducted by Indigenous people in New England after settlers infringed on their land. During the post-Reconstruction era, stories about formerly enslaved Black men positioned them as “a complete sexual and physical danger” to white women. In 2021, the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, a 22 year old white woman, highlighted the major disparity in media coverage between white women and other minority groups, which still exists today. Not only does this narrow focus on violence against white women promote fear mongering, but it minimizes (or ignores) the lived experiences of other kinds of victims. According to a University of Wyoming study, only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims in Wyoming received media coverage, compared to 51% of white victims there. Further, just 18% of Indigenous female homicide victims received media coverage. Additionally, while minority populations are over-associated with crime and over-typified as criminal offenders, the same populations are underrepresented as victims in the media.
The genre has seemingly “found a sweet spot in American popular culture, offering catharsis without making any political or moral demands of its audience.” However, recent additions to the true crime genre are beginning to shift the emphasis to advocacy and reform and are less likely to place unearned trust in federal, state, and local institutional actors. Investigative journalism podcast In the Dark ran for two seasons and was well-known for focusing less on the crime narrative and more on investigating the investigation for missteps made by law enforcement and prosecutors and examining the resulting impact on the victim, the victim’s family, and the community. Another extremely popular podcast, Serial, takes a slightly different approach with its “live investigation” format, but maintains a goal of investigating shortcomings in the police investigation and adjudication processes. Adnan Syed, the subject of Serial Season One, recently had his conviction overturned and was released after serving 22 years in prison. His case was entirely dismissed. And recently, actress Hilarie Burton Morgan created True Crime Story: It Couldn’t Happen Here to reexamine small-town murder investigations and trials while deeply investing in advocacy for marginalized communities in those towns.
Americans who enjoy watching or listening to true crime should seek out content like Serial, It Couldn’t Happen Here, and other sources that are critical of state institutions and provide ongoing support to victims, their families, and their communities. Supporting investigative journalism rather than salacious, reactionary content can make a positive impact, as in Adnan Syed’s case, and is more purposeful than simply dredging up old murder cases for entertainment. Additionally, many of the decision-makers in investigations are elected officials, so increased pressure on these institutional actors is incredibly important to ensure crimes are investigated and tried honestly and without bias.
Victoria Lee is a JD Candidate at Cornell Law School in the class of 2024. She graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Hospitality & Event Management in 2020. Aside from her involvement with JLPP, Victoria serves as the co-president of the Society of Wine and Jurisprudence and the program chair of Women’s Law Coalition. In her spare time, Victoria enjoys baking and watching true crime documentaries.
Suggested Citation: Victoria Lee, Turning Americans’ True Crime Fascination into Action, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter (Oct. 25, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/turning-americans-true-crime-fascination-into-action.