Is watching true crime a crime?

Despite being engaging and suspenseful, sometimes it’s good to pause before binge-watching another true crime series. COCO ROMANO GIORDANO/FOGHORN

Isabel Tayag is a sophomore sociology major.

Phia Rau Halleen is a sophomore sociology major.

With all this free time, many of us have turned to streaming services like Netflix for 

entertainment, as being quarantined seems to be the perfect excuse to binge-watch TV. True crime fans (like us) may find themselves putting on one of Netflix’s latest docuseries, like “I Am A Killer,” “The Ted Bundy Tapes,” and the list goes on. While these shows are both suspenseful and entertaining, we urge you to hit pause and take a moment to read this piece before mindlessly watching the next murder mystery on your list.

True crime fans and creators often argue that these films achieve justice for victims, but this assumption raises a few questions: how can dead victims consent to having their stories publicized, and do they truly benefit? Does the making of the film, and subsequent media attention, only reopen healing wounds for survivors and dead victims’ loved ones? Most victims depicted in these documentaries are unable to consent to the production of their own stories. This is an ethical issue that defenders of the true crime genre cannot refute. The retelling of these stories sensationalizes the crimes and reignites victimization. In the media, victims’ names, faces, and details of the violence they faced become plastered on headlines and newspapers all over again. A quick Google search of a recent Netflix series produced the headline, “Living Hell: Beaten, starved & forced to eat cat poo – horrific torture suffered by Gabriel Fernandez laid bare in new Netflix series,” accompanied by a picture of the little boy’s face. Harmful sensationalization is an inherent byproduct of true crime productions that we must be aware of. 

As articulated by Rachel Chestnut in a New York Times op-ed, the true crime industry rarely 

considers how the on-screen, creation of the perfect “murder mystery” impacts victims and exacerbates second-hand trauma. For families of murder victims, the retelling of their family member’s murder in excruciating detail is the calling card for reliving said trauma. In these families’ eyes, using their family members as “material” for the next Netflix docuseries can feel unfathomable and obscene, because their loved one is no longer viewed as a person — instead, their identities are reduced to the role of “victim” for the sake of public shock and awe. 

However, in recent years, series such as “When They See Us” have done a better job honoring survivors and their families rather than exploiting their trauma. The Central Park Five and their family members were even involved in the production and adaptation of the film. With 16 Emmy nominations and two wins, this series has set an unprecedented standard for the genre. It exhibits the powerful impact that involving victims and/or their families can have. More so, Ava DuVernay, the series’ director, used “When They See Us” to demonstrate larger themes of white supremacy and racism, which plague the criminal justice system. It was not simply a film retelling a story of pain, but one speaking to larger systemic issues. 

As “Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers” director Joe Berlinger points out, “Documentary films have gotten the wrongfully convicted out of prison, advocated for victims’ rights, and have shined a light on problems within the criminal justice system.” This all begs the question: where do we as consumers draw the ethical line between education, advocacy, and justice, and the exploitation of pain and trauma for profit? For us, it all boils down to a film’s narrative nature and its real-life implications. In “A Killer Inside: the Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” Hernandez’s bisexuality is framed as the motive for Odin Lloyd’s murder. This dramatization is commonplace in the genre, as filmmakers often twist elements of a story for shock value. The purpose of social justice is often lost in translation. 

The genre has also proven to have counterintuitive effects on the way we view crime, justice, and 

the criminal legal system. A study by criminologists from the University of Nebraska found that 

watching true crime shows correlated with increased fear of being victimized, increased support for the death penalty, and decreased faith in the criminal justice system. These findings illustrate that true crime documentaries send convoluted messages to their viewers — they shed light on the flaws of the system while simultaneously reinforcing a “tough on crime” mentality. 

For all you true crime fans out there, this article was not meant to make you boycott the genre altogether. If anything, we hope to make you a more conscientious consumer of true crime content. So, hit play and watch the show you had queued up, but keep these questions in the back of your mind as you do. Is the violence over-emphasized? Does justice for the victim and their loved ones guide the film or series? Does it serve a larger societal function? And lastly, ask yourself, “What is the impact of watching this on my attitudes towards crime and the criminal justice system?”

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