True crime – the two sides of amateur criminology

Digitalization and worldwide Internet accessibility have led to interesting developments in the world of criminology. Dozens of cases have been solved due to the availability of DNA bases such as Ancestry, the ever faster spread of information has helped to answer questions about the seemingly hopeless cases of John and Jane Does across the world. However, the spread of information also had its side effects. Completely different types of crime have emerged and the true crime genre was born or rather it bloomed and reached a wider audience. Whether it was a good or a bad thing, that is what I will try to answer by bringing examples from both sides of the spectrum and considering some moral dilemmas I, as a true crime enjoyer, had.

There is a lot of true crime creators, they especially thrive on YouTube and Spotify either by creating videos or podcasts. I have seen my fair share of this type of content and I can say with confidence that there is no right or completely ethical way of talking about true crime and profiting off of it. There are however better and worse ways. For a lot of people, myself included, listening about cases from the past feels less real. Knowing that all or most of the people involved in a case have already passed away helps the audience distance themselves from these events, which is not necessarily a good thing. However, with the more recent cases, especially those with a lot of media coverage, the line between the audience and the victims gets blurry and both the audience and the creators seem to forget that true crime means that there are real people involved in these cases. What is more important: that these people can be exposed to the not always sensitive true crime content.

A perfect example of that is the recent case of Gabby Petito which has gained a lot of attention both from the true crime creators and public media. Unfortunately, it has also drawn in people ready to use this tragedy for their own gain such as @kellythemagicalmedium on TikTok. This self-proclaimed psychic has created a series of TikToks in which she claims to be in contact with the spirit of Gabby creating theories about the whereabouts of her body and her alleged killer while simultaneously lightheartedly talking about her Starbucks order. This insensitive behavior encourages her audience to speculate about theories and conspiracies and forget that this is not a thriller movie paused midway, where we can try and predict the ending. This just shows how easy it is for people to get desensitized as soon as the tragedy is happening on the other side of the screen.

On the other hand, true crime can have a good impact on society as well. Many creators use their content to raise awareness about the dangers we may find ourselves in such as how to realize you are being recruited for an MLM, a cult, or how to identify the characteristics of toxic/abusive relationships. If you don’t let this spiral into paranoia and choose your content wisely you can learn a lot from the mistakes other people made in the past.

I want to also give an example of how true crime passionates can contribute to the general good and that they can have a real influence on true crime cases. Carl Koppelman is an ex-accountant gone forensic artist. The men who found mysterious cases intriguing now dedicates his life to solving them. He creates portraits based on the photos of unidentified bodies and tries to make them look as close to real-life as possible and so far all of them turned out to be very accurate. The portraits are featured on numerous databases in hope that someone stumbles on them and perhaps recognizes someone they know who went missing. His work has directly helped in solving some John and Jane Doe cases but right now there are at least 40,000 cases of unidentified bodies in the USA alone which means he has got a lot of work on his hands.

On the left: Carl Koppelman’s reconstruction of Cali Doe’s face, on the right: the photography of Tammy Joe Alexander identified as Cali Doe in 2015

Let’s not forget about streaming giants such as Netflix, HBO, Hulu, etc. having their fair share in the creation and popularisation of true crime content. It is thanks to them that true crime genre reached its peak and gained so much audience. There are shows such as Mind Hunter which retells the events of the past and the rise of criminal profiling but there are also shows such as American Murderer: The Family Next Door which covers a fresh and disturbing case of the Watts family using real-life footage. Here the moral dilemma goes even further because if an individual uses true crime content for their own gain they do not have as great of an impact as Netflix, for example, does. And let’s face it: it is not on YouTube channels under 1 million subscribers where the true crime money lies.

All in all, there is no way of saying whether the true crime genre is morally wrong or right, it belongs to a gray sphere because this type of content appears on both lengths of the spectrum. I suppose it is up to the audience and their moral code to decide if the particular piece of content is done in a respectful manner. Now that I am trying to wrap it up I realize that this is a never-ending topic and could be analyzed from different points of view over multiple blog posts.