“How’d you get to work last Wednesday…? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure? Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It’s hard.” Sarah Koenig, the host of the podcast Serial, posed these questions to listeners before presenting the case of Adnan Syed, who currently sits in jail, convicted for murder in part because of his inability to provide this sort of precise information. Koenig immediately hooked listeners by placing them in the shoes of the accused, making them reconsider the behaviors and testimonies of all the people involved in the crime she investigated.
In addition to Serial, which, according to Apple’s rankings, quickly became the most popular podcast in the world, true crime television programs like Making a Murderer on Netflix and The Jinx on HBO captivated audiences. Fans quickly became more than just passive viewers—these programs allowed them to engage with the material and take justice into their own hands, and the American public jumped at this opportunity.
But what does it mean when popular media begin to have concrete effects on their subjects? Do these shows and their consumers have the potential or capacity to reshape justice in the real world? And what does this new obsession with true crime tell us about American audiences?
The morning that The Jinx released the finale of its six-episode miniseries, Robert Durst—the man associated with the three murders traced on the show—was arrested. Fans burned to know what that night’s episode would reveal that would incriminate Durst for these crimes. In the show’s shocking ending, Durst went to the bathroom during his interview and, forgetting he was still on mic, exclaimed, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all of course.” While this statement undoubtedly made for a great television ending, it raises many questions about the morality of true crime media. Although editors claimed to not have found this sound bite for two years, it is hard not to wonder whether it was unearthed and then suppressed until the end for the sake of “good TV.” The concurrent desires for justice and positive ratings inevitably place filmmakers in a contentious position.
Norah Dooley (A’76), who teaches an ExCollege course on storytelling and social justice, noted that this tension derives in part from the inherent tendency of humans to simplify storylines and leave out seemingly unnecessary details in order to tell a story successfully. “And then I put my left elbow here and then I touched my head once…it doesn’t have anything to do with the story…At a certain point, though, there is something critical about whether I used my left hand or my right. Who knows? In crime stories particularly, it could be important.” Filmmakers must delicately balance good storytelling with the facts in order to ensure an accurate portrayal of their subjects.
Penny Beernsten, the sexual assault victim who misidentified Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery as her attacker, refused to have a role in the show for these very doubts about filmmakers’ conflicting interests. She explained her concerns to The New Yorker, saying, “I didn’t feel like they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.” When filmmakers have a bias, the ability to present their opinions as facts gives them the dangerous power to shape a narrative and lead audiences to perceive a subjective work as objective truth.
Furthermore, whether or not filmmakers take an impartial stance on their subjects, some say that it’s ethically dubious to profit from another’s pain as a form of entertainment. In an interview with The New Yorker, the brother of Hae Min Lee, the victim of Serial season one’s case said, “To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night.” As spectators, we are trivializing and taking pleasure in the seemingly unreal stories of these very real people.
Audiences have eagerly adopted the roles of investigators. Reddit is crawling with lengthy forums of users poring over the details of Adnan Syed’s case. Slate devoted an entire podcast series of its own to analyzing each week’s new Serial episode, and over 500,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking President Obama to free Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery. However, these efforts at obtaining justice may, in fact, do more for viewers than for those whom they seek to help. While the petition to the president was a powerful sentiment, it was poorly executed—Avery is a state, not federal, prisoner, and thus cannot be freed by the president. Moreover, the petition should not be pushing for a complete acquittal of all crimes, but for a retrial. If successful, this could lead to an acquittal.
Online forums may spark dialogue and draw attention to these issues, but they do not create any concrete changes, serving mostly to sensationalize the stories. The true crime mania largely resembles a form of “slacktivism,” in which people take to the Internet with particular issues without taking steps to fix them. Although people may post statuses or use hashtags to show support for a cause, their actions affect no real change. People engage in slacktivism largely to make themselves feel like active members in a fight for justice, even though their contribution is ineffectual.
However, according to Satia Morotta—a Tufts Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology department who studies issues at the intersection of social psychology, law, and public policy—there are potential benefits to slacktivist efforts. “[B]ased on research on persuasion, if someone agrees to help in a small way, it may make them more likely to agree to future, even larger, requests. So while ‘liking’ a post may not seem like activism, it may be the first step in a series of helping behaviors.” Morotta also noted how Internet activism can draw the attention of people who may be in positions to affect real change. Moreover, she pointed out, “Research suggests that individuals are often motivated to help when an issue’s solution seems simple or obvious. Criminal incidents are often very complex and the public generally has incomplete knowledge upon which to base their attitudes and actions.[…]Currently, the simplest way for someone to help in response to a criminal incident is often signing a petition. If other actions were identified and presented as being easy to do, more people might be encouraged to become more actively involved.”
Perhaps slacktivism’s focus on self-interest is not an inherently negative thing. As Dooley said, “Enlightened self-interest…has to be a part of any effective social movement for change. You have to understand that this is not something that you’re doing for other people…this is something you’re doing for yourself because…you can’t live with this understanding if you’re not doing something.” The problem arises, Dooley said, “if we think we’re doing something just by knowing [these stories] or experiencing them in a very powerful way,” through compelling shows and podcasts. We must take the next step toward concrete change—change that exceeds virtual support. “I click petitions for social justice all the time,” Dooley said, “but I don’t confuse them with an actual movement for social change that will actually afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and change the dynamic of power.”
In fact, there are times when media attention and public involvement seem to have truly helped those involved in the cases they tackle. Deirdre Enright, the director of investigation at the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, has been leading a team of students in an investigation of Syed’s case. Enright told The Wall Street Journal that since Serial’s release, she has received emails from viewers containing “some very good tips on alternate suspects.” Syed has recently finished his post-conviction hearing, which will determine whether he will receive a retrial. Asia McClain, a key witness who may be able to provide an alibi for Syed, was not at his 2012 hearing. She testified that before Serial, “I didn’t think I was very important at all,” but through the podcast, “I came to find out…maybe it is important.” The attention the series brought to Syed’s case may have caused McClain to realize her influence over Syed’s fate. Likewise, The Jinx’s investigation of Durst’s crimes provided the impetus for his arrest and a series of ongoing trials.
However, while these programs had concrete impacts on the people whose stories they followed, such a focus on one case may do more harm than good. Analyzing the minutiae of one case could give the impression that these people were uniquely wronged when the problems presented are often flaws in greater systems. For example, the major issues in Avery’s criminal treatment are frequent trends for many who are accused. According to The New Yorker, out of all wrongful convictions, 72 percent involve a mistaken eyewitness, 27 percent contain false confessions, over 33 percent include police suppressing evidence, and nearly half show scientific fraud.
Moreover, the case presented in a true crime program is one of many—even if the show helps bring justice to those involved, countless other cases remain overlooked. The success that these shows may have in righting the wrongs of their particular subjects gives audiences a sense of retribution, while injustice remains so widespread in our society. It is unlikely that these shows will be able to hold the public’s interest for long enough to affect broad sweeping, meaningful change on a systematic level.