True crime blurs lines. Listening to a crime podcast or turning on a murder show is a dive into ambiguity. Is the program empathetic or exploitative? Are you being informed or desensitised? Who is this helping, and who is it hurting? Is this entertainment?
The most recent true crime case to captivate the internet is the tragic story of “van life” vlogger Gabby Petito, who was first reported missing on Sept. 11, 2021 amid a cross-country trip with her one-time fiancé Brian Laundrie (who, after returning home to Florida without her on Sept. 1, has since also vanished); Petito’s body was later discovered in Wyoming national park on Sept. 19. (CNN has assembled a complete timeline of the case so far.)
As of Sept. 30, the hashtag #GabbyPetito has over one billion views on TikTok, and Slate’s ICYMI podcast has already done a fantastic job dissecting all of the murky factors at play in the case, from the reasons we’re drawn to true crime-as-entertainment generally; to the role “missing white woman syndrome” plays in this particular crime; to the ways that TikTok creators often get things wrong while speaking to an audience of millions or even wilfully spread misinformation.
Across social media platforms, content creators — some displaying compassion, some seemingly chasing clicks — have become key players in turning Petito’s death (which has been ruled a homicide) into a real-time true crime drama. And as is becoming more and more common when news of a certain type of crime breaks, many in the audience have made the jump from simply consuming true crime material to actively sleuthing themselves, scouring the internet for “evidence” to develop or confirm theories about what’s really going on. (There’s even a wholly fictional TV show built upon this premise — Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, about a trio of true crime podcast fans who launch their own investigation into a suspicious death much closer to home.)
This kind of social media sleuthing can produce mixed results. So-called “armchair detectives” have successfully helped reopen cold cases (the Golden State Killer being a particularly high-profile example); independently tracked down internet killers, as chronicled in the Netflix documentary series Don’t F**k With Cats; and identified hundreds of people suspected of taking part in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. On the flip side, there is no shortage of unqualified “investigators” causing more harm than good — e.g. falsely identifying several people as perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Whether you get caught up in the investigations yourself, there’s no easy answers to questions about whether it is ethical to listen to or watch true crime “content” like it was any other podcast or TV show. To be a conscientious consumer means to think critically whenever you engage with a genre centered on real human victims (or notably not centered on them). Below are some guiding questions that can help well-meaning true crime fans maintain their empathy.
Understand that it’s natural to be intrigued
According to Insider.com, experts say we’re hardwired to become fascinated with cases like Gabby Petito’s, and that “the interactive nature of social media can make people feel they’re part of something bigger.”
Cheyna Roth, podcast producer for Slate and author of Cold Cases: A Collection of True Crime Mysteries, thinks about it like this: People have always loved a compelling mystery. People love reality TV. Modern true crime essentially combines both of these things, using the addictive format of the latter to explore the former; it’s natural to get sucked in. The issue comes when we as an audience forget that something is not simply a story for our entertainment, but actually a chronicle of the worst — or final — day of a real person’s life.
Not only is it common to have a morbid curiosity, but it’s also common to have a morbid sense of humour. The sheer number and popularity of true crime comedy podcasts speaks for itself (and a breakdown of that genre warrants a novel of its own). In every intro of My Favourite Murder, arguably the strongest force in true crime comedy, hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark typically give a disclaimer about their use of humour as a coping mechanism, not as a means to make fun of victims. But for every fan who finds solace in the jokes, there’s someone who finds them inherently disrespectful, problematic, or flat out wrong. The key is to ask yourself: Who are the jokes about, and who are they for?
Focus on facts over theories
Keeping in mind basic news literacy will help you distinguish when you’re listening to journalistic facts versus getting sucked into speculation. Although engaging in conspiratorial thinking can seem benign, true crime misinformation, or even just semi-informed theorizing, is always done at the expense of a real person and their family.
Time and time again, Roth has seen “the sort of ‘bad’ true crime that focuses on the perpetrators and doesn’t treat the victims and surviving families as real people,” she says. Her guidance is to “caution people to be thoughtful and choose quality true crime. There are a lot of well-sourced, engaging, well-rounded books by professionals out there, and you don’t need to support productions that are unfair to victims and spread misinformation.”
Luckily, not all social media sleuths are unscrupulous, and not all TikTok investigators are simply seeking clout. Creator @crimewithsondra’s account is one of those that deliberately and diligently prioritises facts over theories in videos. Sondra told me she’s interested in sharing facts above all else — she’s not a detective, and she’s not trying to be an “influencer.” She says that the families involved in the cases are at the forefront of her mind in every video, and that maybe that should be the case for those who are consuming them as well.
These are real people, not characters
Roth says listeners should notice the difference when a piece of content treats the victims with compassion and empathy. “The story feels less exploitative when it’s more well-rounded and they consider the surviving family,” she says, “such as asking for consent and making sure to paint the victims as real people, not merely characters in a sensational story.”
Another way to centre the victims? Something Sondra calls the “that’s my birthday too” moment: This is the moment when you discover a detail about the victim that makes them that much more relatable and human, and brings you that much closer to the sinking feeling of “that could have been me.”
Sondra believes that kind of emotional reaction on a consumer’s can be a positive thing for the real people involved in the cases too, so long as it helps spread accurate information. In fact, she feels “true crime is how someone goes from a ‘missing person’ photo on the wall to a public understanding that this is someone’s child.”
This points to a path for ethical engagement with true crime. As Alison Foreman wrote for Mashable, “perhaps by shifting their fandom’s energies away from amateur detective work and toward informed entertainment criticism, true crimers can positively impact American culture’s understanding of justice as a whole. If they can fight against the gravity of desensitization to instead refocus on the human element of these stories, then they can honour the real people at their centre.”
Think before you post
True-crime journalist Billy Jensen believes in the power of fans taking action. “I truly believe citizens … can help solve the backlog of unsolved murders, violent assaults, and missing persons,” he wrote in his bestselling book Chase Darkness with Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders.
As a former prosecutor herself, however, Roth is sceptical of this mindset. She finds unqualified voices chiming in can not just add unnecessary noise to an investigation, but actively harm ongoing cases by injecting them with misinformation. As the ending of the Gabby Petito episode of Vox’s Today, Explained reminds us, the subjects of these stories aren’t characters, they’re real people, so please: “Sleuth responsibly.”
Even if you aren’t posting your own videos or delving into your own theories on Reddit, be thoughtful with what you comment on and share. Sondra urges true crime consumers to put themselves in the family’s shoes, especially before they comment on her videos: “Think — what if the family saw it? How would they feel? How would I feel?”
Keep grappling with the tough questions
Much as a detective would, keep asking the tough questions — not about the case itself, but about what you’re so captivated by in it, and why.
Asking hard questions of yourself is not necessarily intuitive or, well, pleasant. Dr. Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist and chair of Illinois Wesleyan University’s psychology department and a self-proclaimed true crime fan, told Mashable:
“There would have to be some really extreme violations for people to actually stop and think about what they’re watching … when I’m watching a show or whatever, I don’t stop and think to myself, ‘Oh, but did the victim’s family consent to this?’ And if I don’t think that, I’m guessing most people don’t either.”
As with any attempt at ethical consumerism, it all comes down to being thoughtful and deliberate with what you’re taking in and why. “Maybe that’s the most important thing,” Roth says. “Keep grappling. Keep asking if the story is responsible. Keep asking whether this is helping or hurting — after all, isn’t that what we can do as any kind of consumer?”
Go the extra mile
Independent sleuthing isn’t the only way to be a part of true crime. You can use social media to amplify missing persons cases (taking the necessary step of fact-checking first to make sure you aren’t boosting a hoax), or even donate to the victims or their surviving family members in some way. When in doubt, many families have Facebook pages dedicated to ways you can help their case.
Popular YouTuber Ada On Demand posted a video about the ethics of monetising tragedy in which she offers some succinct guidance: “Let’s be more active consumers of true crime. Click those petitions, go to the GoFundMe … this can be a concerted effort between [the consumers] and the creators to make this a more victim-centered, less ‘just-for-entertainment’ space.”
However you engage with true crime, there’s a cost to your content — and the victims have already paid enough.