Responsibility and ethics in the true crime genre

Ever-increasing growth in popularity and production of the genre raises questions

Attempting to list even a majority of the murder, torture, abuse and scandal cases covered by some form of true crime media would take up this article’s entire word count, and it still wouldn’t begin to be comprehensive. People have historically taken interest in high-profile cases such as those of Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony, both in real-time and after the fact, their stories preserved thanks to true crime.

The case of South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh, who was recently found guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, in 2021, recently became Netflix’s latest true crime docu-series. “Murdaugh Murders — a Southern Scandal” was released this February, airing in the middle of Murdaugh’s trial which began in January and reached a verdict on March 2.

Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby, directors of the Murdaugh series, say that this timing was not planned. “The idea that this trial, which we knew was coming, would fall right at the same time that our series would premiere was a level of serendipity that no one could have ever fathomed,” Furst said in an interview with Variety.

Similar to what has happened after other widely publicized murder trials such as Bundy’s, people flocked to South Carolina for the Murdaugh case, which James Pollard covers in an article for the L.A. Times. He notes that Murdaugh’s is a case where the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” definitely applies and contributes to people’s fascination with it.

In a video from News 19 WLTX, which covered much of Murdaugh’s case, people are shown visiting the site of the murders as a tourist attraction. Two of the visitors, Joe and Linda Chapman, speak about why they chose to visit the scene of the crime.

“We just kind of wanted to see where everything happened,” Joe said. Linda said, “You just start listening to all this [information about the case], and it’s like a drama.”

Pollock also notes, however, that truth and fiction are not interchangeable, quoting the lead prosecutor in a 1994 double murder trial South Carolina, state Rep. Tommy Pope.

“‘It’s like a soap opera, but it’s really happening with real people,’ said Pope, adding, ‘This is not entertainment. It is a tragedy and lives were lost.’”

This is the main reason people find the true crime genre to be so morally complicated — the success of media is predicated on quantifiable popularity; clicks, streams and copies of books sold increase when a story is entertaining, which means true crime storytellers must prioritize keeping their audiences engaged.

In September of 2022, a docu-drama series about Jeffrey Dahmer aired on Netflix. The series, titled “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” amassed nearly 300 million hours of views by October and reached the streamer’s Top 10 in 92 countries in the first week following its release.

One scene, in particular, featuring Rita Isbell, the sister of Errol Lindsey who was murdered by Dahmer, went viral. The scene is a verbatim recreation of an emotional statement Isbell, played by DaShawn Barnes, gave in court. The scene’s virality speaks to its impact on the success of the series, but it also raised questions about the ethics of using real people’s stories for entertainment.

Following the release of the series, Isbell wrote a personal essay published by Insider. “I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything,” Isbell wrote. Although she feels like it should have happened, nothing technically required Netflix to obtain Isbell’s consent for an actress to portray her as a character.

There is currently no standard set of guidelines for how true crime stories should be told, but with the constantly updating source material it has to draw from, it is likely that the genre will remain popular for a long time. Storytellers will continue to navigate the relationship between entertainment and real life, and controversy will likely continue to follow.