Is True Crime Ethical?

By Haley Hart

October 20, 2023

I’m 7 years old and laying on the floor of my grandmother's living room. The fan is blowing on me from above. In one hand I have a juice-box I’m sipping from and in the other I have a polly pocket that I’m playing with. Everything is peaceful, everything except what is blasting on the television in the background. Dateline. A show about murders and disappearances with around 33 seasons which, in my opinion, is 33 too many. When I was younger I wondered why in the world my sweet, cookie-baking grandma would watch this of all things before bed. I have memories of her saying that it was a good thing to be aware of this stuff, and that’s what Dateline was in fact doing, spreading awareness. I just didn’t quite understand why they had to have gruesome descriptions of the crimes with unsettling instrumental in the back to do that.

A Brief History of Society’s Morbid Curiosity

The concept of sensationalizing death, yet claiming it’s for moral reasons is nothing new. In 19th century France, tourists from all around the globe came to what was known as “La Morgue”. A morgue in which the bodies brought to it were stripped, frozen, and then wheeled out behind a display window for all to see. The morgue’s intentions with treating these unknown corpses like a sort of exhibit was allegedly so family and friends could identify the body, but was not the public’s reason for coming, it was a form of entertainment to them. Leon Gozlan, a French playwright, likened the morgue to a boutique of some sort saying, “You go there to see the drowned as elsewhere you go to see the latest fashion.” 

There are obvious parallels between the way true crime is talked about today and the way tabloids used to speak about it decades ago. The gossipy way newspapers spoke about the cases is eerily similar to that of modern day true crime podcasts. History always repeats itself.

Image of media shown under the true crime genre (Netflix)

The Current Status of the True Crime Industry

It’s no surprise that the genre rose to such prominence in recent times. However, there is an obvious difference between the true crime media of the 80’s and 90’s, and the true crime content of today. Shows such as Unsolved Mysteries and Forensic Files had a repetitive formula, yes, but it was a wildly more respectful one. One where the victims' families were consulted and the event was spoken about as it should be, that of a tragedy. Since the rise of short form content centered around true crime, the way horrific cases are talked about has changed drastically. It is beyond apparent that the nature of most current true crime platforms is much too lighthearted. The most prominent example being internet content creators doing casual tasks during their videos. For example, doing makeup, eating takeout, or doing arts and crafts while discussing gruesome cases like it’s gossip.

I would describe the current state of true crime media as unavoidable. It’s on just about every streaming service you could imagine and has an active community on just about every social media platform as well. According to Parrot Analytics, “Documentaries [have] become [the] fastest-growing streaming genre”, "Between January of 2018 and March of 2021, the number of true crime documentary series soared by 63% while demand for them skyrocketed by 142%." 

Everyone I know has dabbled at least a little bit in true crime content, including myself. This naturally leads us to question, “what about true crime intrigues us?”

Why Are We Fascinated?

There have been many theories as to why exactly people are so interested in such a horrific subject matter. Numerous studies have explored the idea of a correlation between the gender of victims and the gender of the true crime audience. According to a 2010 study, researchers had found that women were far more likely to select true crime books that had information on the motives behind crimes and how to defend oneself against a perpetrator. “Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men,” the researchers concluded; “the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime.” 

Many others have theorized on whether or not it’s an innate desire within us to have a sort of morbid curiosity. Criminologist, Dr. Scott Bonn says the appeal behind true crime media is rather straightforward: “serial killers excite and enthrall people, much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters. People don’t want to look, but they can’t look away.”

So…Should You Stop Watching?

Like anything else, true crime has its fair share of pros and cons, but does the good outweigh the bad? Of course, not all true crime content is immoral. There is plenty of true crime media that speaks about cases in an ethical and sympathetic way, and even some that donate all the proceeds made from the content to the victim’s family. However, this sort of style of true crime media is harder to come by. Now, for the big question: is it really that bad for us? 

Experts believe it differs from person to person. Depending on several factors, including your current mental health state. A 2023 article by FAEHealth, titled, “Is True Crime Binging Affecting Your Mental Health?” had this to say about the subject: “If you are already feeling down in the dumps–depressed or anxious–binging or even watching a single episode of a true crime show could magnify those feelings. If you’re already feeling fearful or worried, those shows are more likely to reinforce than alleviate those feelings.” 

We can all easily infer that true crime content is typically in poor taste, but it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s an industry that is flourishing. So, the decision to quit engaging in true crime content is one that is personal and extremely nuanced. 

I, personally, stopped watching true crime about a year ago, when I was mindlessly scrolling on Netflix, and stumbled upon a film in which Zac Efron, the heartthrob of my childhood, was playing a man who confessed to murdering 30 young women. I only watched the trailer, but even engaging in that felt off. Ever since making that decision, I have seen benefits show up in my own life. For example, I’ve been less paranoid. Of course, as women, it’s good to be aware, but not to a debilitating point. 

When researching the effects of true crime, I stumbled upon a podcast featuring psychologist, Dr. Thema Bryant, who dared to pose the question I believe all true crime “enjoyers” should ask themselves:“If your idea of relaxing before you go to sleep is to watch three episodes of Law and Order, [then] I would encourage you to think about ‘why is trauma relaxing to me?’”