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

From the immense popularity of 20th century novels “In Cold Blood” and “Helter Skelter” to the record-breaking success of television shows “Dateline” and “Law and Order,” stories of violent crime have long captivated the American psyche. In recent years, however, the rise of true crime podcasts has taken this age-old obsession to new heights, with 50% of iTunes’s top ten podcasts dedicated to the genre as of May 2021. The first season of “Serial,” one of the oldest and most popular true crime podcasts, accrued over 300 million downloads.  

You’re likely familiar with the genre’s tropes: A young middle class white woman with a promising future (and whose smile, genuine or not, is always said to have lit up a room) meets her untimely death at the hands of a sociopathic monster. Maybe he’s scarily normal like Ted Bundy or John Wynne Gacy. Or in the case of the Zodiac Killer or Jack the Ripper, maybe he was never caught. True crime podcasts tend to stick to this same, predictable formula — all the way down to the Hello Fresh and Squarespace sponsorships. 

However, it seems that this true crime media might not actually be that “true.” By over-representing white victims of crime and under-representing cases of domestic abuse, this media distorts the true nature of violent crime. As a result of this gap, I worry that the very media we’ve found to cope with our fears may actually exacerbate them, dangerously distorting and misrepresenting crime’s most likely victims, while simultaneously dehumanizing and typecasting its perpetrators.

It’s also critical to consider who this media is catering to. The true crime audience skews decidedly female: According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Radio and Audio, women make up 73% of true crime podcast listeners. Compared to their male counterparts, female listeners reported tuning in more for three salient reasons: social interaction with other listeners, escape and voyeurism. This first reason — social interaction — is crucial. With violence against women so ubiquitous, I’ve felt in my own life just how validating true crime media can be, assuring women that not only are their fears of violence completely rational, but that they’re not alone in feeling them. 

True crime media is far from representative. Serial killings account for less than 1% of murders in the United States. And while this content tends to focus on violence committed by strangers, in reality, most violence is committed by people that we know. In fact, one in four women will experience sexual or physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. What’s more, the victims in true crime stories are overwhelmingly white: An analysis of the popular podcast “My Favorite Murder” found that approximately two-thirds of the first 150 episodes focused on white-on-white crime. In contrast, a 2015 Violence Policy Center study found that Black women were two-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. 

But does this misrepresentation actually make a difference? While there isn’t widespread data about the effects of true crime media specifically, we do know quite a bit about its sister genre, cop shows. Given the two genre’s similarities, we can extrapolate how true crime might be similarly distorting its consumers’ perceptions of crime. According to Quartz , 35 of the 69 scripted TV dramas that aired on CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC in the 2019-2020 season focused on some form of law enforcement. But the ubiquity of this genre comes with a cost. According to a Color of Change report, which looked at 26 different crime-focused television shows from the 2017-2018 season, cop media tends to misconstrue and excuse incidents of police misconduct (particularly when an otherwise sympathetic protagonist is the perpetrator). As a result, the report’s authors concluded that the popularity of cop-centered media has actively contributed to the normalization of police violence.

This media has undoubtedly warped my own perception of law enforcement at times. Whenever I see a fictional police officer break into a house or elicit an illegal confession on TV, in the heat of the narrative it’s often difficult to actually identify these actions as brutality (after all, aren’t we supposed to be rooting for the cops?). When we center law enforcement’s perspective, the audience naturally comes to identify with law enforcement rather than with the alleged criminals or victims of crime. While cop shows differ from true crime in a variety of ways, all of this goes to say that our perceptions of the criminal justice system are inevitably shaped by the media we consume. 

In the case of true crime, this presents a clear problem. By centering the experiences of white women and vastly under-representing the number of minority victims in our true crime narratives, we fail to extend sufficient empathy to the most likely victims of real-world violence. This is mirrored by the disproportionate media attention we devote to white female victims of crime, something that researcher Zach Sommers has deemed the “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” 

The types and severity of crime represented in true crime media can also have significant implications. By focusing on incidents of gruesome serial crime, for example, we risk stoking the very fears women wish to alleviate by watching this content in the first place: A 2016 Pew Research study found that most Americans believe crime is on the rise. However, with the exception of the past two years, the crime rate in America has been steadily falling for decades. While this distorted perception of the crime rate certainly can’t be linked to the rise of true crime media alone, I suspect that our gruesome media diets aren’t helping create a clearer sense of reality. 

I know that I’m statistically unlikely to be killed by a serial killer, but that doesn’t stop me from walking around as if I might be. Availability heuristics describe the mental shortcuts we take when making decisions — we tend to make judgements based on what we see most often represented, rather than what is statistically true. There isn’t an inherent downside to being overly cautious, but this paranoia can easily become all-consuming. While we can intellectually recognize that the crimes of, say, Ted Bundy are just extreme anecdotes, the more we saturate our media diets with these cherry-picked examples, the more they inevitably shape our overall impression of crime and criminals. While it’s not particularly important that we empathize with Ted Bundy, the issue occurs when we start thinking that most criminals are like Ted Bundy. The more we elevate criminals that appear more monstrous than human, the easier it becomes to see all criminals this way. And as the acceleration of mass incarceration under the “tough on crime” years has shown us, giving into these reactionary instincts can have a devastating human cost.

Horrifying as these true crime cases may be, I can’t help but wonder if my attraction to true crime media isn’t somewhat rooted in the genre’s moral simplicity. In a world as messy as ours, it’s easy to see why stories that offer clear heroes, victims and villains may be appealing. And just as cop shows portray uncomplicated “good guy” vs. “bad guy” narratives, true crime offers women stories where the lines between psychopath and victim are abundantly clear — a satisfying alternative to a world where boyfriends, fathers and teachers are so much more likely to commit abuse than a stranger. By pretending that true crime is representative of everyday violence, we avoid living with the unsettling reality that the people we love are the ones most likely to hurt us. 

I’m genuinely conflicted about my own relationship to true crime media. When it comes down to it, I don’t see a reason to stop consuming it altogether, nor do I think that others need to. I also wonder if the widespread criticism of true crime’s popularity isn’t itself rooted in misogyny (is true crime the new chick flick?). It is, however, critical to recognize how this genre is falling short — how true crime obscures the statistical realities of violence, and preys upon our most reactionary instincts to dehumanize criminals altogether. It’s worth considering whether metabolizing our fears in this way, either consciously or unconsciously, might actually be compounding them. 

Sarah McGrath ’24 can be reached at sarah_v_mcgrath@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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