The Morality of True Crime Entertainment

It seems like every Friday there’s a new true crime documentary being released on Netflix. People watch it, obsess over it for a week, then the hype dies down and people move on to the next true crime documentary. And the never-ending cycle repeats itself. Netflix documentaries aren’t the only media attracted to true crime stories. Many of the most popular podcasts happen to be dedicated to true crime like My Favorite Murder. YouTube channels build a loyal following by creating videos talking about real-life crimes. There are communities on TikTok centered around theorizing about unsolved crimes or ongoing cases. The amount of content that is created based on true crime has truly become staggering. What is even more astonishing is how much we eat all of it up. People’s fascination with true crime entertainment isn’t new, but the boom it is experiencing right now is oh highs we haven’t seen before. The interest is so high almost any documentaries, podcasts, YouTube videos, and TikToks about true crime will enthrall viewers who tune in. But do viewers have the right to be enthralled by these stories at all?

True crime entertainment media is made to entertain viewers. Viewers can come away from these stories learning about a case they had never heard of before and possibly they learn something of value out of it. But still, above all else, the goal of true crime entertainment isn’t to spread awareness or teach their audience. It’s to entertain them with stories about the worst day of somebody’s life. They ultimately accomplish their jobs because viewers are entertained by these stories and search to find more to engage with. The problem with this is that true crime entertainment puts too much space between the real life people affected by these tragedies and the viewers who are looking for a source of entertainment. Viewers have become so desensitized to these often violent crimes, that it feels like they are forgetting these crimes happened to real people. Instead of these cases being discussed with the care and respect they deserve, most true crime audiences theorize, speculate, and talk about them the same way they talk about fictional films and television shows. How have we become this far removed from the true crime genre that we regard it in a similar way we do scripted dramas? It all starts with how the media we consume promotes it to us.

The Monetization of Netflix Documentaries

Everything Netflix creates is with the hope that they can make money off of it. It’s standard business practice. No one should bat an eye at Netflix making money off of scripted films and television shows, but true crime is an entirely different story. Netflix is making money off of real crimimal cases. Their true crime documentaries are often centered around brutal acts of violence especially murder. And typically these cases are fairly recent. It isn’t a case of Netflix making documentaries about crimes that happened centuries ago. Most of these documentaries are based on cases that happened a few years ago. This means the families of these victims are still alive and acutely aware that their family member’s tragic death is being used to entice viewers into watching a documentary that will make Netflix a lot of money. More often than not the families of these victims do not want these documentaries to be created.

In a Time article written by Melissa Chan, we learn about the experience of one family of a victim whose death was made into an episode of the popular Netflix series I Am A Killer. Netflix contacted the family of Robert Mast to ask if they would participate in the episode documenting Mast’s murder in their second season. The family did not agree to participate in the episode. Instead, they begged the producers of the series to not make the episode about Mast’s murder while they were still grieving the loss of their loved one. Netflix did not listen to their pleas and made the episode of the show detailing the murder of Robert Mast without his family’s involvement. Their experience is far too common in this new age of true crime entertainment. Netflix is getting away with defying the request of victims’ families. They don’t care that the families and loved ones of the victims are being re-traumatized by seeing the crime that took their loved ones away become a media frenzy. All Netflix is thinking about is the money they are making off these documentaries. Netflix’s true crime documentaries are some of the most popular media Netflix creates. It makes them a lot of money and that is enough for them to not respect the wishes of the families of the victims they are covering. If this is how little Netflix takes into consideration how their documentaries will affect the families of the victims, then why should true crime viewers consider them at all?

The Comedy of True Crime Podcasts

True crime is a genre that often scares people from watching, reading, and or listening to it. As it should. True crime isn’t for the faintest of hearts. Cases covered in the true crime genre can be terrifying to learn about. Thich is why some of the many podcasts that are about true crime talk about the crimes in a palpable way that won’t scare viewers off. And by palpable, I mean they inject humor into their podcasts. The true crime podcast My Favorite Murder has made it their entire brand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making true crime cases not so terrifying to hear about and more digestible to viewers. These true crime cases usually are dark and hard to listen to. A reprieve from all the gruesome details of grizzly crimes is much appreciated by listeners who need it.

However, there does come a point where bringing levity to these topics can give the wrong impression to viewers. Inappropriate humor or jokes that make light of these crimes can accidentally diminish their gravity. Rarely is this ever the intention for podcasters but it does happen. There’s a fine line between making listeners feel more comfortable while spreading awareness about horrific crimes that deserve attention and not taking these cases seriously enough. In the latter, you promote to audiences the wrong way to discuss these important stories. Humor can be found in almost any situation including when discussing true crime. It can be acceptable in certain situations, but some true crime podcasts confuse giving moments of lightness in their shows with making light of serious subject matters. How we hear podcasts talk about true crime influences how seriously we take discussions about true crime in our daily lives.

The Insensitivity of YouTubers & TikTokers

It’s not only Netflix that is cashing in on monetizing true crime. YouTubers and TikTokers are doing the same thing, but with far fewer resources and even less self-awareness. Most YouTubers and TikTokers who make content concerning true crime are not skilled journalists. They are novices who do a minimal amount of research on the case and then report the details to their audiences. It’s a mistake to have people who are inexperienced in investigative journalism researching and reporting true crime stories to impressionable audiences. True crime stories should only be reported on by professionals in the field who know what they are doing. People should not be learning true crime stories from YouTubers and TikTokers who are not adequately trained to report the stories. What makes matters worse is that some YouTubers and TikTokers are blatantly biased. If a YouTuber or TikToker is convinced that a suspect in an unsolved case is innocent or guilty they will project their bias to their viewers. There is little room for objectivity when dealing with true crime YouTubers and TikTokers. This is without mentioning the other type of true crime YouTubers and TikTokers that are out there.

There’s a side of true crime YouTubers that will report cases while doing their makeup or hosting a mukbang. When reporting true crime stories, the sole focus of the video should be on the crime itself. When adding different elements to the videos like putting on make-up or eating, it feels disrespectful to that case that is being discussed because it isn’t getting all of the attention from the presenters and therefore the audience won’t give it their full attention either. Then you have TikTokers acting like sleuths, investigating the details of real life cases, creating theories, trying to solve them. It’s hard to see both of these types of videos as anything other than insensitive. TikTokers shouldn’t be investigating these cases like they’re detectives because they’re not. To them, researching these crimes is a hobby. But to other people, this is their job and it has an effect on real people. Neither of these types of videos is an acceptable way to talk about a true crime case. There needs to be a level of professionalism that these videos do not provide. It’s content like this that makes people think it’s okay to treat criminal cases like a TV show. The way they frame real life people as heroes and villains and create theories of the cases is exactly how people talk about TV shows. YouTubers and TikTokers are normalizing the wrong way we should talk about true crime.

Each of these types of media is contributing a negative impact on how we talk about true crime. There is too much of a disconnect between viewers consuming true crime and the real life victims. True crime has become a genre that prioritizes the entertainment value of true crime rather than accurately portraying the stories of the victims they cover. It’s not surprising that audiences are becoming more and more desensitized to hearing about gruesome crimes. When these crimes aren’t presented to them with the respect and seriousness they deserve, it’s hard for audiences to treat the cases any better than the person who is telling them the stories. Filmmakers, podcasters, YouTubers, and TikTokers have to do better presenting true crime to audiences if they insist on doing it. Whether that means taking into account the families of the victims, discussing the crimes in a more serious tone, or covering them with the professionalism that they require. The true crime genre can exist. True crime stories can be told to viewers in the right way, but it has so often not been and that needs to be course-corrected. People will probably always love hearing about true crime stories, so it’s important we learn how to discuss them without causing more harm to the families of the victims and the victims themselves.

My book Living Rent Free In My Head: Essays On Pop Culture comes out on August 2, 2022. Pre-order it now for only $3.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other vendors.


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