No Guilty Pleasure Here: Why Ethically Executed True Crime Has My Heart
Editor Kat Johnson professes her love of well-done true crime books that strike the right balance between telling an engaging tale and being salacious.By Kat JohnsonApr 5, 2018 1:48 PM
Trend pieces on true crime often point to a pivotal moment when the genre exploded into popularity, sparking the craze for salacious and often exploitive tales of murder, mayhem, and violence. The problem is, which origin story do we mean? Was it the arrival of Serial, the first podcast phenomenon, back in 2014? The 1990s obsession with OJ Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey, the Menendez brothers, and Court TV? Or the 1890s trial of Lizzie Borden, who likely wasn’t guilty of murdering her family, but is still associated with the “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks” rhyme in schoolyards today?
I suspect humans have always been drawn to stories of the dark side. Sometimes, as the many women who love true crime will say, it’s a form of protection, a warning—like the grisly fairy tales of old—to stay away from the shadowy woods, or that guy with a creepy-looking van. Sometimes it’s because we have a real, and noble, desire to see justice done. Some of us want to understand the spectrum of human behavior, to be better parents, neighbors, and citizens, to identify warning signs before it’s too late. But often true crime feels a lot like entertainment, the exploiting of the personal tragedies of others for titillation and shock.
This is especially problematic when amateur investigators, unscrupulous journalists, Internet commenters, and others intrude into the private lives of victims or glorify the perpetrators of violence. True crime is often appallingly racist, classist, and gendered, as missing or murdered white women and girls receive endless media coverage while crimes against people of color, LGBTQ communities, sex workers, and poor people are woefully underreported.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The baseball statistician and crime writer Bill James says that when we tame our baser instincts, our interest in crime “does not have to be a wild animal roaming the streets. It can be caged; it can be used for good purposes.” When we choose to engage with true-crime works that meet an ethical bar for compassion, justice, and humanity, it can lead to psychological insight, survival skills, and even the solving of cold cases.
Ethically minded content creators struggle with these questions even earlier in the process. Jennifer Forde, who reported on the audio show West Cork with her husband Sam Bungey, told me, “We had good relationships with all sides—the victim’s family, the accused, law enforcement—and worried a lot about whether each one would feel we were giving too much emphasis or airtime to a competing narrative. But constantly considering what they would make of it all was helpful as it meant we were constantly asking ourselves, ‘Is this fair’?” Interestingly, Forde found that this approach was good for the story, too. “It stopped us from getting too carried away with one narrative,” she says. “Because we had all sides taking part, we had a duty to those contributors to make something that was balanced, and we felt that duty very acutely.”
I think that sense of balance and duty comes through in West Cork, without sacrificing the twists and turns that keep listeners captivated. When stories are told this way, true crime doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. These are the listens I recommend most.