Over the past decade, true crime content has become incredibly prolific across many different platforms, including mainstream television, the internet and literature. Consumers are taken through the lives of the most harrowing, depraved individuals from the perspective of investigators looking to understand the motives and methods behind their grisly crimes. This hyper-focus on the boogeymen of the real world poses a very thought-provoking question about the morality of the genre: What is the line between informative and exploitative true crime media, and what does their approach say about the morals of those who produce this content?
On Sep. 30, Netflix released “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” a true crime documentary providing an intimate, firsthand glimpse into the lives of Chris and Shannan Watts prior to a brutal act of familicide. Sitting down to watch the documentary, I had no indication of the poignant lens director Jenny Popplewell would use to approach this event. Watching the documentary didn’t feel like watching a production; it felt like entering into the private lives of people I had only heard of in news headlines. Using information supplied by family and friends of Shannan Watts, Popplewell stripped away the typical bystander’s perspective of a tragedy, and instead created a heartbreakingly intimate rove into the world of Shannan, Bella and Celeste Watts in the weeks prior to their violent, untimely deaths.
“American Murder” finds success in an area where many true crime productions fall short. The intense focus on the perspective of Shannan Watts provides the foundation for retelling a story that originally gained notoriety because of the killer rather than the victims. Instead of seeing the Watts’ story from the perspective of a voyeur, you are guided through the weeks leading up to the murder via Shannan’s Facebook posts, personal messages with friends and family and even firsthand footage from a first responder.
This lens is something that is lost in a vast majority of true crime media. The personal stories of victims tend to get lost because of the sensationalized details of the perpetrators who stole their lives.
Deciding on what to focus on is where directors and production teams can veer into ethical quandaries. The lines between ethical and unethical true crime content often mirror the lines between informative and exploitative content. While “American Murder” focuses on the victims, other true crime productions tell their stories in a way that is insensitive to victims and their families.
While “American Murder” succeeds in its attempt at ethical storytelling, other true crime productions have crossed ethical lines that exploit the subjects of their stories. One example that raised eyebrows was the addition of a second season of “Making a Murderer.”
What was initially meant to be a follow-up on the wrongful conviction of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey turned into a documentary that completely disregarded the reality that an innocent life was tragically taken. A substantial amount of this season focuses on defense attorney Kathleen Zellner’s attempts to prove that Avery and Dassey were not culpable for the murder of Teresa Halbach. In its attempt to absolve the two men of the murder, the season completely neglects the life of Teresa Halbach and her family. Furthermore, the documentary omits evidence that would raise doubts about the innocence of Avery and Dassey. The combination of those two ethical violations results in true crime content that exploits the brutal stories of victims.
Despite the different approaches of true crime content, the tightly woven nature of the community has become a tool that can often help solve crimes. This was visible early in the Watts investigation as experts were able to weigh in on the limited evidence: Linguists provided a statement analysis and forensic psychologists even analyzed the behavior of Chris Watts, which both played an integral part in advocating for his further investigation. True crime has become exceptionally popular among various internet communities, banding together thousands of armchair detectives attempting to solve cases they’re passionate about. One extremely powerful example of this is the solving of the Tara Grinstead case by true crime podcaster Payne Lindsey.
In October 2005, teacher Tara Grinstead seemingly vanished into thin air and was reported missing. Her loved ones endured years of wondering what could have happened to Tara in their quaint Georgia town, and why nobody ever came forward with evidence to help find her. While Georgia native Payne Lindsey was searching for unsolved cases in his home state, he came across her bewildering disappearance. Her cold case became the subject of his debut 2016 podcast, “Up and Vanished,” a show initially intended to chronicle his investigation.
Being that Grinstead disappeared from a very tight-knit community, news of the podcast spread like wildfire and reignited discussions about the case. After months of publicly examining the final moments of Grinstead’s life, the pressure from Lindsey’s investigation ultimately prompted the murderer to confess before being exposed on the podcast. In his newest production, “Dead and Gone,” Lindsey spoke about his motivation for investigating unsolved crimes. He said, “I’ve learned firsthand the power of the media. How telling a story of an unsolved case to millions of podcast listeners can actually make a difference. It can take an ice cold case and set it on fire, and when people are talking again, slowly but surely, the case is flowing again. Any case you cover as a journalist or podcaster will never leave you.”
Lindsey’s podcast demonstrates the multifaceted ways that true crime can affect the world. For example, unlike many true crime productions, “American Murder” provides a striking reminder that there is always a tragedy at the core of every story. The genre can be an important source of social commentary that can incite systemic change in the way victims of crimes are treated by media productions and news outlets. True crime content is ethical when producers remember victims always come first.
Regardless of the nature of the material, true crime content shouldn’t be a platform that bestows fame to heinous criminals; it should serve to immortalize stories of victims and the families who will grieve them every day for the rest of their lives. It can even help a struggling family uncover the truth about what truly happened to their missing loved one. While true crime content can’t revive the subjects of its harrowing stories, media produced in the genre should ensure they are remembered as real people and not characters in boogeyman tales.