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Home » McGrath ’24: True crime media distorts our understanding of crime and the prison justice system

McGrath ’24: True crime media distorts our understanding of crime and the prison justice system


From the immense recognition of twentieth century novels “In Chilly Blood” and “Helter Skelter” to the record-breaking success of tv reveals “Dateline” and “Regulation and Order,” tales of violent crime have lengthy captivated the American psyche. Lately, nonetheless, the rise of true crime podcasts has taken this age-old obsession to new heights, with 50% of iTunes’s high ten podcasts devoted to the style as of Could 2021. The primary season of “Serial,” one of many oldest and hottest true crime podcasts, accrued over 300 million downloads.  

You’re probably aware of the style’s tropes: A younger center class white girl with a promising future (and whose smile, real or not, is at all times stated to have lit up a room) meets her premature demise by the hands of a sociopathic monster. Perhaps he’s scarily regular like Ted Bundy or John Wynne Gacy. Or within the case of the Zodiac Killer or Jack the Ripper, perhaps he was by no means caught. True crime podcasts have a tendency to stay to this similar, predictable formulation — all the way in which all the way down to the Good day Contemporary and Squarespace sponsorships. 

Nevertheless, plainly this true crime media won’t really be that “true.” By over-representing white victims of crime and under-representing instances of home abuse, this media distorts the true nature of violent crime. Because of this hole, I fear that the very media we’ve discovered to deal with our fears may very well exacerbate them, dangerously distorting and misrepresenting crime’s most certainly victims, whereas concurrently dehumanizing and typecasting its perpetrators.

It’s additionally crucial to think about who this media is catering to. The true crime viewers skews decidedly feminine: In accordance with a 2018 examine within the Journal of Radio and Audio, girls make up 73% of true crime podcast listeners. In comparison with their male counterparts, feminine listeners reported tuning in additional for 3 salient causes: social interplay with different listeners, escape and voyeurism. This primary cause — social interplay — is essential. With violence in opposition to girls so ubiquitous, I’ve felt in my very own life simply how validating true crime media might be, assuring girls that not solely are their fears of violence fully rational, however that they’re not alone in feeling them. 

True crime media is way from consultant. Serial killings account for lower than 1% of murders in america. And whereas this content material tends to concentrate on violence dedicated by strangers, in actuality, most violence is dedicated by folks that we all know. The truth is, one in 4 girls will expertise sexual or bodily violence by the hands of an intimate associate. What’s extra, the victims in true crime tales are overwhelmingly white: An evaluation of the favored podcast “My Favourite Homicide” discovered that roughly two-thirds of the primary 150 episodes centered on white-on-white crime. In distinction, a 2015 Violence Coverage Middle examine discovered that Black girls had been two-and-a-half occasions extra more likely to be murdered by males than white girls. 

However does this misrepresentation really make a distinction? Whereas there isn’t widespread knowledge in regards to the results of true crime media particularly, we do know fairly a bit about its sister style, cop reveals. Given the 2 style’s similarities, we will extrapolate how true crime may be equally distorting its customers’ perceptions of crime. In accordance with Quartz , 35 of the 69 scripted TV dramas that aired on CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC within the 2019-2020 season centered on some type of regulation enforcement. However the ubiquity of this style comes with a price. In accordance with a Colour of Change report, which checked out 26 totally different crime-focused tv reveals from the 2017-2018 season, cop media tends to misconstrue and excuse incidents of police misconduct (significantly when an in any other case sympathetic protagonist is the perpetrator). In consequence, the report’s authors concluded that the recognition of cop-centered media has actively contributed to the normalization of police violence.

This media has undoubtedly warped my very own notion of regulation enforcement at occasions. At any time when I see a fictional police officer break right into a home or elicit an unlawful confession on TV, within the warmth of the narrative it’s usually troublesome to really establish these actions as brutality (in spite of everything, aren’t we presupposed to be rooting for the cops?). After we middle regulation enforcement’s perspective, the viewers naturally involves establish with regulation enforcement slightly than with the alleged criminals or victims of crime. Whereas cop reveals differ from true crime in quite a lot of methods, all of this goes to say that our perceptions of the prison justice system are inevitably formed by the media we devour. 

Within the case of true crime, this presents a transparent drawback. By centering the experiences of white girls and vastly under-representing the variety of minority victims in our true crime narratives, we fail to increase enough empathy to the most certainly victims of real-world violence. That is mirrored by the disproportionate media consideration we commit to white feminine victims of crime, one thing that researcher Zach Sommers has deemed the “Lacking White Girl Syndrome.” 

The kinds and severity of crime represented in true crime media also can have vital implications. By specializing in incidents of ugly serial crime, for instance, we threat stoking the very fears girls want to alleviate by watching this content material within the first place: A 2016 Pew Analysis examine discovered that the majority Individuals imagine crime is on the rise. Nevertheless, except for the previous two years, the crime fee in America has been steadily falling for many years. Whereas this distorted notion of the crime fee definitely can’t be linked to the rise of true crime media alone, I think that our ugly media diets aren’t serving to create a clearer sense of actuality. 

I do know that I’m statistically unlikely to be killed by a serial killer, however that doesn’t cease me from strolling round as if I may be. Availability heuristics describe the psychological shortcuts we take when making selections — we are likely to make judgements based mostly on what we see most frequently represented, slightly than what’s statistically true. There isn’t an inherent draw back to being overly cautious, however this paranoia can simply develop into all-consuming. Whereas we will intellectually acknowledge that the crimes of, say, Ted Bundy are simply excessive anecdotes, the extra we saturate our media diets with these cherry-picked examples, the extra they inevitably form our total impression of crime and criminals. Whereas it’s not significantly essential that we empathize with Ted Bundy, the difficulty happens once we begin considering that the majority criminals are like Ted Bundy. The extra we elevate criminals that seem extra monstrous than human, the simpler it turns into to see all criminals this fashion. And because the acceleration of mass incarceration underneath the “robust on crime” years has proven us, giving into these reactionary instincts can have a devastating human value.

Horrifying as these true crime instances could also be, I can’t assist however marvel if my attraction to true crime media isn’t considerably rooted within the style’s ethical simplicity. In a world as messy as ours, it’s straightforward to see why tales that provide clear heroes, victims and villains could also be interesting. And simply as cop reveals painting uncomplicated “good man” vs. “unhealthy man” narratives, true crime provides girls tales the place the traces between psychopath and sufferer are abundantly clear — a satisfying various to a world the place boyfriends, fathers and lecturers are so more likely to commit abuse than a stranger. By pretending that true crime is consultant of on a regular basis violence, we keep away from dwelling with the unsettling actuality that the individuals we love are those most certainly to harm us. 

I’m genuinely conflicted about my very own relationship to true crime media. When it comes all the way down to it, I don’t see a cause to cease consuming it altogether, nor do I feel that others have to. I additionally marvel if the widespread criticism of true crime’s recognition isn’t itself rooted in misogyny (is true crime the brand new chick flick?). It’s, nonetheless, crucial to acknowledge how this style is falling quick — how true crime obscures the statistical realities of violence, and preys upon our most reactionary instincts to dehumanize criminals altogether. It’s price contemplating whether or not metabolizing our fears on this manner, both consciously or unconsciously, may really be compounding them. 

Sarah McGrath ’24 might be reached at [email protected]. Please ship responses to this opinion to [email protected] and op-eds to [email protected].


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