E20: Stay Skeptical and Don’t Get Murdered: A Genre Analysis of True Crime

On this week’s episode, Alex, Calvin, and Caitlan seek a formal definition of True Crime, identifying the strategies, rhetorical and otherwise, that have elevated the genre and its diverse sub-genres to the realm of cultural obsession. Our hosts discuss what distinguishes True Crime from “untrue” crime shows or other types of “true” content related to crime. They then explore how medium structure, genre features, and various narrative techniques are employed to captivate and motivate consumers of True Crime—particularly in new media that draw on audience participation to push their reporting forward.

Our hosts go on to analyze how “new” True Crime - like the podcast Serial or the docu-series Making a Murderer - takes its audience behind the curtain of the criminal justice system, and how these media combine a creative approach to storytelling with a journalistic search for truth when presenting cases of public interest. How does a sharp focus on evidence gathering raise public consciousness around the miscarriage of justice? Our hosts also begin to untangle the ethical implications for those producing and consuming True Crime. When popular series cash in on the public’s morbid fascination for sensational stories, does this decision serve to unethically commodify our consumption of tragic events?

As our hosts discuss their favorite True Crime productions—as well as those that they find more problematic—they probe the critical potential of the genre. Can rigorous reporting open up the dialogic space for alternative narratives in unsolved cases? Can certain genre tropes, like exposing coerced confessions, work in the service of social justice? Ultimately, what can True Crime do, and what is it currently doing, to affect our politics and public culture?

Works and Concepts Cited in this Episode

Boudet, M. (Host). (2013). Sword and Scale [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://swordandscale.com/.

Buozis, M. (2017). Giving Voice to the Accused: Serial and the Critical Potential of True Crime. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 14(3), 254-270.

Dittrich, S. (Writer). (2018). Murder Mountain. [Television series]. Toronto, CA: Lightbox.

Kilgariff , K and Hardstark, G (Hosts). My Favorite Murder. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.myfavoritemurder.com/about.

Koenig, S. (Host). (2014). Serial [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://serialpodcast.org/.

Mahdawi, A. (16 Oct. 2018). As Making a Murderer returns, is the obsession with true crime turning nasty? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/oct/16/making-a-murderer-is-our-obsession-with-true-crime-turning-nasty-serial

Seltzer, M. (2008). Murder/media/modernity. Canadian Review of American Studies, 38(1), 11-41.

Zaillian, S. and Marsh, J.(Directors). (2016). The Night Of [Television Series.] New York, NY: HBO.

Alex Helberg