Can true crime be ethical and entertaining?
The new season of Making a Murderer has raised serious questions about whether true crime can be ethical or if the genre is voyeurism disguised as journalism. Is ethical true crime possible?
True crime seems to be the trend du jour, but I’ve been a little too interested in mysteries and murder since I was a kid. Not in a super creepy way, but I loved cop dramas and my dad’s old stories of being a police officer. For a hot second I flirted with the idea of studying forensics until I realised I definitely prefer words over test tubes.
Discovering the world of podcasting and meeting a bunch of other people who also like mulling over mysteries and murder has been a blast, but as with almost any form of media true crime also raises some sticky ethical issues. And they’re questions I’ve had to consider closely as a journalist scripting my own true crime podcast.
The true crime ‘craze’ is nothing new
Is it just me, or does true crime seem to be everywhere? It’s completely acceptable to know more about Ted Bundy than the Kardashians.
It’s hard to judge because our social media profiles can turn into voids of our own interests and most of my fellow journalists probably already have a skewed interest in true crime/bizarre stories not always considered appropriate conversation in polite society.
But it definitely seems the popularity of documentaries like Making a Murderer or The Staircase and podcasts like Serial, Dirty John, and The Teacher’s Pet have infiltrated ‘normal’ life outside my usual murderino circles.
Earlier this year, it seemed like everyone in my Instagram feed was reading Michelle McNamara’s bestselling I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which skyrocketed to international prominence when news broke that the suspected Golden State Killer had been arrested.
But true crime, and our fascination with the macabre, is nothing new. Public hangings used to attract huge crowds, and broadsheets would filter through those gathered with salacious details of the crime a grim warning not to follow in the footsteps of the condemned.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is now considered a classic of the creative non-fiction genre and possibly of the first true crime stories which garnered continued acclaim from wider audiences.
Why are we drawn to these stories? Perhaps it’s driven by the same safe exposure to fear that sees people watch horror movies I couldn’t possibly stomach. Give me a detailed documentary on a serial killer any day over The Conjuring.
I’m comforted by the fact that, as depraved and evil as human beings can be, true crime also presents a solution. Although not always understandable, crime has a logic to it that the paranormal doesn’t.
Even knowing a solution is possible (even in the most unfathomable unsolved cases) comforts me and controls the fear I’m exposing myself to by consuming true crime.
Making a Murderer and the ethical dilemma
Journalism is an industry constantly plagued by ethical dilemmas, but this rise of true crime as entertainment adds new emotion.
Making a Murderer is perhaps the most prominent example of a clash between entertainment and ethics.
Part Two follows attorney Kathleen Zellner, famous for winning several wrongful conviction cases, as she conducts experiments aimed at proving Steven Avery’s innocence.
These experiments involve re-creating elements of the crime, as prosecuted by the Sheriff's Department, including a rather confronting scene where a mannequin representing murder victim Teresa Halbach.
The way this reduced a victim of a brutal murder to nothing more than a test dummy felt so, so wrong.
I don’t disagree with Zellner’s methods; these experiments are a crucial part of the case she is building against the Sheriff's Department.
But did they really need to be included in the documentary? Or did our lust for good television overwrite any ethical considerations?
In reporting, do no harm
As a journalist in a (relatively small) regional centre, I am acutely aware on a daily basis of the impact my reporting can have on so many people.
A juicy court case might tantalise my news sense, but it’s important never to forget that there are so many innocent people caught up in the web of any crime.
The toughest stories I ever have to write follow unexpected deaths. In every case, sensitivity to the family is my prime concern and I will work with the family as closely as possible, sending them my stories or headlines prior to print and correcting anything they’re uncomfortable with.
Ethical decisions are something every journalist must negotiate on their own, and I’ve been lucky to have a boss who taught me to err on the side of respect (probably also a natural side effect of regional reporting versus metro papers).
I would not be writing my true crime podcast if I had not spoken to some of the family members of the victims.
Sure, it’s 20 years on and the case it closed but the pain for those families is a daily struggle and my personal stance as a journalist is to do no harm.
Personally, I want to honour the women killed by a truly evil predator as much as I want to highlight the repeated legal failings which allowed this man to walk the streets.
Heading into my first interview for the podcast I was so nervous because I didn’t want to offend, to say the wrong thing.
Yet, the incredibly strong mum of one of the girls killed told me talking to a stranger who wanted to listen to her full story did her the world of good.
As a journalist, there’s absolutely nothing which makes me prouder than to be told I’ve actually helped someone.
I’m honoured to be a stranger let into people’s lives and I couldn’t exploit that or break that trust.
Storytelling and creating the ‘character’
Caroline Graham, Bond University lecturer, has dealt with these ethical issues on the ground while co-writing Lost in Larrimah with Kylie Stevenson.
The podcast explored the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty from a tiny (literally, a dozen people) town in the outback. It was as much about his story as it was the loss of the classic Aussie town and the culture that goes with it.
Graham says shaping real events and trauma into a long-form story format encourages audiences to fall back on certain narrative arcs often employed in fiction.
“This raises uncomfortable questions around what happens to information that doesn’t fit the overall narrative shape; there have been several high-profile examples of true crime series that haven’t followed important investigative leads because they’re not in keeping with the overall narrative premise,” she says.
Character is crucial to good storytelling, and Graham believes this can also create an ethical dilemma: characters get people emotionally invested in the story, but presenting sources in a literary fashion can re-traumatise victims and families or, in the worst cases, “lead to a kind of criminal celebrity”.
Even though reporters may approach a story with sensitivity and clear ethics, often as Graham notes also deeply connected to the human impact of the crime they’re exploring, the same may not be said for audience reaction.
The audience can really easily lose sight of the trauma and tragedy that underpins such stories, and fall into the trap of discussing events and circumstances in purely narrative terms, forgetting the real human impact,” Graham says.
“Until now, there’s been a sense that reporters aren’t responsible for the flow-on effects of a high-profile narrative (for example, widespread audience speculation), but over time I hope we might see reporters try to shape the tone of external discussions around their reporting, perhaps.”
Much like my own experience of small-town reporting, Graham says becoming intimately involved in a case while researching a true crime project can strengthen a reporter’s ethics, saying “being closer to the story made us really aware of the implications of everything we researched and wrote”.
Can true crime toe this ethical line while also being entertaining?
Personally, I think it can. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is testament to that, but McNamara’s extraordinarily detailed and respectful work is a rare beast. (I’ve included some more suggestions for well-researched and ethical, but addictive true crime below).
Graham also believes the risk of crossing into voyeurism is particularly high in true crime reporting.
“Part of what journalism does is expose us to the stories of people whose lives and circumstances are really different to us, so I think there are ways that our curiosity about others can be a powerful way to generate understanding, knowledge, context and empathy,” she says.
“I would say that for a true crime investigation to be successful there should be an impetus for telling the story that goes beyond curiosity.
“For example, if there are questions about the score or effectiveness of a police investigation, or evidence an injustice has done, or new reporting can advance a case with no leads, or the reporting is trying to explore a deeper thematic or social question, it’s much easier to defend those narratives against accusations of voyeurism.”
In some cases, and in Making a Murderer Part Two in particular, I think it slips a little too far into voyeuristic territory.
Did audiences need to see the Zellner experiments in detail to know this is an attorney committed to proving the truth of a crime? No. But it made for good television in a story that lacks fresh, or any, vision.
As a print journalist and podcaster of course I’m faced with less ethical dilemmas, because I don’t have to have good vision to tell a story.
However, Making a Murderer crosses some boundaries I personally wouldn’t be comfortable with in my own reporting.
As a journalist I believe Making a Murder is playing a vital role in highlighting a case which was wrongfully prosecuted, despite the guilt or innocence of the accused.
The pre-trial publicity alone was enough to stack any jury against Avery, and that was due to the statements of prosecutors in the case.
Issues like that require serious examination and I’ve no doubt there are dozens of other cases which need similar scrutiny, but they don’t need to be done at the cost of respect for the victims and their families.
That ethical line is one which all journalists, podcasters, writers, filmmakers or anyone involved in true crime needs to consider on their own terms, in relation to their own projects.
I’m more than happy to toss entertainment value out the window in favour of solid reporting, but I also know that entertainment is what draws an audience and that’s key for any business. So basically, it’s a constant juggling act but I believe those with the biggest stakes in any story should shape any reporter’s behaviour.
True crime recommendations
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: Painstakingly researched, this is the way I want to write true crime. It blends creative storytelling techniques with the utmost respect for the victims and their families in a truly unforgettable way. Buy a copy here (affiliate link).
Lost in Larrimah: This podcast was co-written by Caroline Graham, a friend and mentor of mine, so of course it is on the list and her views are in this piece. I was fascinated to listen to the stories of the people in the town (which has a population of about a dozen people and is slap-bang in the middle of the Aussie outback) and I know this podcast was produced because the people in the town were willing to be involved. Well worth a listen and at only six episodes it’s an easy binge. Listen here.
Dirty John: This LA Times podcast/feature series was thoroughly researched and creatively told. It’s been done with the family and their insight adds so much to the reporting. Listen here. Read my review.
Trace: This podcast has successfully shed light on the unsolved murder of Melbourne mum Maria James. Following this detailed reporting, again done with the assistance of and respect for the family, the case was reopened. Listen here or buy the book (affiliate link).
Exposed: The Case of Keli Lane: Another great ABC production, this time a television documentary which investigates claims that convicted murderer Keli Lane did not in fact kill her baby Tegan. This documentary is a great example of well produced television true crime which maintains respect of the family, but continues to be thoroughly compelling. Watch here