True Crime: Ethical or Exploitive?

Sarah Salmi, Arts & Cul. Reporter ‘26

The famed Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”
For a long time, the most common way to be up to date on crime was to read newspapers, or watch documentaries. During the COVID-19 quarantine, a new way to consume these cases arose: true crime.

True crime content is generally described as nonfiction audio or visual media where a case involving a crime is described and examined. The topics in true crime can range from kidnapping, robbery, arson, and most commonly, murder. However, as true crime podcasts, documentaries, and other media grew in popularity, many questioned the ethics of listening to stories based on tragic events that impacted real people.
“True crime is exciting because it takes [people] out of the mundane world,” said Dan Russo, an experienced criminal law specialist and attorney who is a founding partner at the Solano County based firm Maas and Russo.

The public’s fascination with crime is nothing new. From the public executions of the 1600s, to the cheap serialized penny dreadfuls of the 1800s, to the nationwide interest in the Lizzie Borden case of the early 20th century, the general public has always been interested in the gruesome details of horrific events.
True crime in the form of podcasts became mainstream in 2014 with the start of the true crime podcast Serial, which covered the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee over the course of the first season. True crime on platforms such as YouTube also grew in popularity, during which creators would explain details of a case to the audience, sometimes while doing activities like putting on makeup, or cooking. In 2022, there was reportedly over 200 true crime podcasts on the Apple Podcasts app.

20th century true crime media.

The main criticism of true crime is that it profits off of stories of tragedy. Critics argue that true crime can glorify the killers, while the victims lose their humanity, becoming more like characters in a story, instead of real people. Some depictions may not give the victim or their families proper representation, and thus the subject is treated more like a spectacle for people’s entertainment.
The 2022 show Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story drew criticisms after it was revealed that the portrayal of Dahmer’s victims were not approved by the families of the victims. Evan Peters even won a Golden Globes award for Best Actor in a Miniseries for his role as the deranged serial killer.

Increased media attention may affect the outcome of a case. Russo worked on the 2015 “Gone Girl” case, where Denise Huskins and her partner Aaron Quinn were accused of fabricating a kidnapping. In March 2015, Quinn reported that they were the victims of a home invasion, in which the culprits also abducted Huskins. The Vallejo police quickly accused Quinn of murdering Huskins, but when Huskins was returned, instead accused the couple of faking the whole ordeal. The name “Gone Girl” was derived from Gillian Flynn’s 2012 thriller, where the main character stages a kidnapping to frame her husband for her murder. Eventually, Huskin’s abductor was caught and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The damage from the constant media scrutiny impacted the couple in the years after the arrest. The fact that the case was being compared to a movie only shows the impact of treating a real case as a story, instead of a traumatic experience for the couple involved.

On the other side of the debate, some say that true crime can spread awareness, especially to female listeners. According to data collected by the FBI from 1985 to 2010, 70% of known victims of serial killers were women. True crime podcasts can also bring awareness to missing people who have not received much media coverage, particularly people of color.
True crime is also a way to create awareness for some of the reasons people may commit these crimes. A common link in serial killers is childhood trauma, whether physical or sexual.
“There are certain things about educating people to real issues that have a real impact on people’s lives,” said Russo on the topic.
The best ways to be an ethical consumer of true crime are by consuming cases that have the victim or victim’s families involved, sharing proven facts about missing people, and remembering the very real and traumatic impacts of true crime.

As the credits start to roll on a documentary, or as the podcast episode comes to a close, the consumer can simply turn it off and continue with their lives. The victims and their families, however, cannot change the channel on their story.