Opinion: The Ethics of True Crime

As true crime becomes more ubiquitous, we must examine the moral concerns that surround the genre.

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Zoe Ky

True crime shows, books, and podcasts have rocketed in popularity, bringing with them new controversy.

Aris Pastor, Co-Editor-in-Chief

On September 21, 2022, Netflix’s DahmerMonster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story was released, sparking a new wave of discussion—and controversy—regarding true crime. The arguments that surround Dahmer are not unique to the series, and as true crime becomes more of a staple in entertainment, ethical concerns have only become more exacerbated.

True crime, as a genre, has a long history, from its popularization via Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood to Richard Brooks’ 1967 film adaptation to Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary film The Thin Blue Line, which traced the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams. The genre is also not limited by medium. Particularly popular are podcasts like “Serial,” which reached ten million downloads within seven weeks. In fact, in 2019, Chartable found that half of the top ten podcasts were true crime. 

Many attribute this popularization as a coping mechanism, particularly for women. One 2018 study found that roughly 73% of the true crime podcasting audience were women.

In her introduction to her book Life of the Party, poet Olivia Gatwood examined her own true crime obsession. 

“I found true crime because of my fear,” Gatwood wrote. “A fear that, for so long, felt absurd and loud and wholly my own. True crime taught me that I am not the only one being devoured by this anxiety. And I am not the only one whose reaction is to consume as much true crime as possible—to fuel and fight it at once.”

Of course there is value in the community true crime brings, as well as the comfort it can bring. Ethical consumption and creation of media are not cut and dried, and true crime, as a genre, has a complicated history—and certainly, a complicated future. 

Ethical consumption and creation of media is not cut and dry, and true crime, as a genre, has a complicated history—and certainly, a complicated future. ”

One must recognize the effects that true crime has on victims and their families. Notably, the families of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims were never consulted on the show, and they did not give their permission to be portrayed in the series. 

“I don’t see how they can do that,” Shirley Hughes, the mother of one of Dahmer’s victims, told The Guardian. “I don’t see how they can use our names and put stuff out like that out there.”

Similarly, Rita Isabell, the sister of victim Errol Lindsay, found the portrayal on the show triggering, specifically citing seeing her control over the narrative being taken away yet again as an “out-of-body moment.”

As we return, again and again, to portraying crimes that happened in real life, we must recognize the retraumatizing effect fictionalizing and romanticizing serial killers can have on victims. Even in times when victims speak for themselves, they often feel control of their narratives being taken from them. 

Serial murderer Ted Bundy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, under the pseudonym “Elizabeth Kendall,” wrote a memoir titled The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, which outlined her perspective on the double life Bundy led. She later was not included in the production of a film adaptation of her own memoir, and she was only allowed to tell her own story after legal action. 

“They were telling my story about Ted Bundy, and they had never contacted me,” Kloepfer told Vanity Fair. “I knew it was going to be hard. I was just appalled that this was going to start up again.”

True crime can not only be exploitative and retraumatizing, but it is often sensational as well. A research paper from Portland State University showed that many people find true crime to be both alarmist and stigmatizing, especially in stereotypes about race, class, and mental illness. 

True crime also tends to place a lot of faith in both the legal system. Killers taken into custody are often the end of the story, with an assumption that justice was served. 

The true crime I want does not celebrate police or prison as a final act of justice, but recognizes these systems as perpetrators too—defective, corrupt, and complicit in the same violence that they prosecute.”

— Olivia Gatwood, author

“The true crime I want does not celebrate police or prison as a final act of justice,” Gatwood stated, “but recognizes these systems as perpetrators too—defective, corrupt, and complicit in the same violence that they prosecute.”

In true crime that includes the courtroom, much of the legal portrayal is warped by the lens of the producers. Clark Peters, an associate professor of social work and co-founder of the Center for Criminal and Juvenile Justice Priorities at Missouri University specifically pointed out that “the idea of the courtroom as a space with constant intensity and drama is a misconception.”

It is also of note that most of the most prolific true crime cases surround violence against white women, despite men of color disproportionately being victims of violent crime. 

“The language of true crime is coded—it tells us our degree of mourning is contingent on the victim’s story,” Gatwood wrote. “While students and athletes are often remembered for their accolades and looks, sex workers or women who struggled with addiction are reduced to those identities as a justification for the violence committed against them—if their stories are even covered at all.” 

The flaws of the genre also have legal precedent. In United States courtrooms, there exists both a right to privacy—to be free from unwarranted publicity—as well as a right to publicity—to be free of misappropriation of a person’s name, likeness, or other indicia of personal identity for commercial benefit.

The right to publicity was established in 1905 in Pavesich v. New England Life Ins. Co. There, in which the court ruled in favor of a private citizen who sued an insurance company over the unauthorized use of his image in advertisements. 

However, even in states like California, a leader in terms of media production, the right to publicity does not apply to “accidental celebrities,” which include victims of crime. 

A lack of legal protection for victims only exacerbates audience reactions to victims, often leading audiences to dehumanize the victims and their killers rather than honoring them. Social media and journalists alike have pointed out the romanticization of famous serial killers like Dahmer or Bundy. True crime can also often encourage vigilantism, as seen in the online reaction to the Gabrielle Petito case. 

I don’t think it’s a normal thing to comb through a murder victim’s Instagram. That’s such a violation.”

— Emma Berquist

Writer and stabbing survivor Emma Berquist told The New York Times, “I don’t think it’s a normal thing to comb through a murder victim’s Instagram. That’s such a violation.”

I am not under the illusion that true crime will ever stop being created, nor do I think that the genre is inherently unethical. In cases like Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, true crime quite literally saved a man’s life. There is value, as well as a journalistic responsibility, in reporting these cases.

However, as true crime becomes increasingly popular, we—as media consumers, as journalists, and as the general public—must re-examine how the genre fits into both entertainment spheres and legal ones. The right to publicity must be expanded, and true crime must be written with journalistic integrity and compassion.

As Gatwood wrote, “[T]he true crime I want is written by women. The true crime I want moves beyond the star athlete. I want the stories that honor girls, not sensationalize them.”