Opinion: True crime podcasts: stop treating exploitation as entertainment

It is no secret that America loves true crime. No, seriously, one in three Americans admit to consuming any form of true-crime-related media at least once a week and one in four confess to interacting with the genre at least four times a week. 

It is difficult not to question the morality and unavoidable profiteering that coincides when victims of violent crime become a synonym for pleasure and profit. 

I myself, am no saint. During the pandemic, the true crime genre offered me a sense of much-needed control as my world was flipped upside down. Over an episodic blur of female suffering, I gained an awareness of my resilience and validation of humanity’s cruelty.

My indulgence has always discomforted me, yet I find myself returning to the genre like clockwork. It is harmful and I feel dirty; however, it begs the question of just how damaging consuming true crime can be.

While the genre has existed since the Victorian era, it is difficult not to notice just how profoundly true crime has saturated the entertainment industry. From books to podcasts to documentaries and everything in between, true crime’s ubiquity has proven to be almost inescapable. 

DePaul criminology professor Rhonda DeLong explains why the genre is irresistible to consumers. 

“It seems to be so entrenched in our culture, at least historically, looking back at all of the things that have happened, like the Civil War, brother against brother type of thing,” DeLong said.

While I do not believe individuals should be condemned for giving in to the world of true crime, my problem lingers with how the genre not only profits off victims and their families but also constructs a false narrative of victimhood and promotes unhealthy patterns of thought. 

“It’s about what sells, what makes money, and it’s sad, and that’s you know what many of them [producers of true crime] are looking at,” DeLong said.

True crime has made it disturbingly easy for viewers to overlook that the victims, whose accounts they hear, are real people, not merely characters in a novel. Coupled alongside the genre’s accessibility to take in story after story, it becomes painfully available for the worst day in an individual’s life to become nothing more than a momentary fix of entertainment.

“When do you get to that point of exploitation?” DeLong said. “I see that in our news media, you know it’s like let’s throw in some pictures of gross dead bodies and destruction and all that. To me that’s exploitation, not making us aware and eventually we will become numb to it.”

Yet, beyond gory imagery and dramatized reenactments, true crime holds power to bolster misleading notions of victimhood, reinforcing racist ideology within a justice system already plagued by injustices.

Although men of all races ages 16 to 24 undergo the highest violent crime rate, it has been proven that Black men are most likely to endure victimization by crime.

However, it is unlikely that faithful consumers of true crime would know this. With 73% of true crime podcast consumers being women, it is not surprising that content creators mirror their audience within their production, relying on America’s fascination with missing and endangered white women.

“It gives us those preconceived ideas and we judge people a lot based on them and what the media shows us,” DeLong said. 

Not only does this ingrain a false perception of victimhood, but it encourages women to assume that every stranger holds the potential to murder them.   

I am not saying that white female victims should be ignored. Rather, the same desire and attention audiences have to bring them to justice must be given to men and women of color. 

DePaul criminology professor Geneva Brown explains the importance of understanding the reality of crime, and not relying on entertainment for news.

“If you look at the actual statistics of homicide victims, upper class white women are probably the least likely to suffer any sort of violent crime that there seems to be a fascination with,” Brown said. “Again, because it happens so rarely within those circles of power and influence that’s what makes it a fascination.”

As seen most recently through the Gabby Petito case, the 22-year-old became a symbol of innocence and purity, gaining national media attention overnight. Yet while Petito’s case got resolved, little changed for the 710 Indigenous people, mainly women and girls, who had vanished within Wyoming in the decade before and leading up to her death.

“We don’t cover missing women of color, and the population that is most victimized is Indigenous women and Mexican women, especially in Juarez,” Brown said. “There have been a number of ritual killings and we don’t talk about them.”

It is unlikely that true crime will ever fall out of fashion and even more unfortunate that the genre will ever place morality and justice above profit and viewership. So, what can we do?

In short, stop consuming this media. If it does not bring justice to the victim and their family or combat harmful stereotypes of victimhood and racist archetypes, then what is the purpose of this genre besides grotesque entertainment that idolizes an even corrupter justice system?

Connect with Lilly Keller: @lillyraek | [email protected]