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Murder, mayhem and moral dilemmas

| Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

“We don’t think that murder is funny, we don’t think that people being killed is funny — we just think that we’re funny.”

The very first podcast I ever listened to regularly was “My Favorite Murder,” a comedy podcast that falls into the popular and highly lucrative family of true crime podcasts. It is one of the most beloved members of that family — when you Google “true crime podcasts,” it comes up second. The mother of true crime podcasts, “Serial,” gets first billing. 

Five years later, “My Favorite Murder” is still one of the only podcasts I listen to regularly. I walk to class listening to the hosts tell each other questionably-researched but predominantly true stories about a host of horrible things — murders, kidnappings, cults. They’re former comics, so along the way they tell jokes. Not jokes about the victims or the violence, but jokes about the story. They’ll joke about a murderer’s mustache, or about their lack of understanding of how cyanide works — ultimately, they say jokes are their way of coping with the horrifying content. 

I had never really thought critically about my love of “My Favorite Murder,” or “Dateline,” or Netflix true crime documentaries, until this last year. While true crime has held a prominent position in entertainment for the past decade or so, it was only this last year that I started seeing real critiques of the genre bubble to the top of my Twitter feed. 

The criticisms I’ve seen posit that true crime is fundamentally exploitative, turning the traumatic events of real peoples’ lives into murder-mystery thrillers. Critics also argue that true crime sensationalizes violence, props up the police state and glorifies the perpetrators while ignoring the lives of the victims. However, most critics recognize that there’s a spectrum — there’s clearly a difference between investigative journalists ethically researching a local true crime case and Charles Manson fan pages.

In the past week or so, true crime has found itself front and center on 24-hour news channels with the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. You can find plenty of articles working through every detail of Petito’s case, and that’s not really the point of this column, so I won’t rehash it. Instead, I want to talk about how Petito’s case has turned into an inflection point for the true crime community, why that is, and what it means for consumers of true crime, like myself.

Gabby Petito’s disappearance captured the national spotlight for a lot of reasons — she was young, she had put a lot of her life on social media so she felt accessible, and her fiance, now a person of interest, has seemingly fled, adding an extra dramatic element. It’s obviously an extraordinarily tragic story, and it is incredible that the social media attention put pressure on authorities, leading to the discovery of her body after only a few weeks. Yet, something about the case, and specifically the way people were discussing the case, rubbed me the wrong way.

True crime TikTokers, many of whom have been previously critiqued for their casual delivery of stories and tendency to spread misinformation have been heavily involved in the Petito case, with users posting hundreds of videos filled with updates and theories as the case developed. Regardless of the national prominence of the story, however, there are still very real people involved in this case who are actively mourning a very real person. And those involved are not OJ nor Sharon Tate they were people who chose, other than a few YouTube videos, to keep a private life. I understand spreading the word for the sake of solving the case, but I couldn’t help but think about how, if I was the victim of a violent crime, I wouldn’t want my Instagram captions decoded by people on the internet.

Ultimately, though, what is the difference between this and “My Favorite Murder?” There is the matter of distance — the podcast doesn’t really cover developing stories or even stories from the last ten years. But that doesn’t mean they don’t cover stories about people whose grandchildren are still alive, still healing from the trauma. There is also the matter of purpose — “My Favorite Murder” is a comedy podcast, and the hosts go to great lengths to emphasize most of their information is from Wikipedia. They are not inserting themselves into a tragedy like those discussing Petito’s case are, even if they are discussing cases from the same perspective.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reporters following an unfolding criminal investigation. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with people consuming true crime in ways that are less-than-traditional. I do think that consumers, including myself, need to demand more of some true crime creators. Whatever the format, creators need to do a better job of centering victims, talking with families, receiving approval to tell stories, choosing stories about more diverse victims and refraining from sensationalizing brutal violence. 

There is a responsibility that comes with telling stories about real people, and while true crime is not new, the rapid ascendance of the genre combined with the accessibility of social media has made it possible for creators to obfuscate that responsibility. For what it’s worth, “My Favorite Murder” has been around for five and a half years, and has reconsidered its approach to storytelling several times in response to listener feedback. They still have a long way to go, but their evolution is proof that consumers have power. I still listen, and I still like true crime, but in the future I aim to do so in a more critical way, and I hope others take this conversation to heart and do the same.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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