True Crime and Tragedy as Entertainment

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about using real life pain, tragedy, and abuse as entertainment. A part of this comes from listening to the podcast Missing Richard Simmons, in which one journalist looks into the enthusiastic fitness instructor’s rather sudden retreat from public life a few years ago and the turmoil that the show caused. Listening to that show felt weird at so many moments and Amanda Hess over at the New York Times nailed exactly why it felt so invasive.

There are so many other examples similar to Missing Richard Simmons that are based on that same sort of premise: using and telling someone else’s story in a very public way. Many (but not all) of these productions are about events that are traumatic and violent, making them moments that I’m sure not many would want to constantly relive on a public stage.

There are numerous episodes from the hit show Law & Order: SVU that are based on real events and headlines and other shows, like Making A Murderer, that have had a huge audience prying into real life crimes and the lives of the people involved; hit podcasts like Serial, My Favorite Murder, and Casefile: True Crime all take someone else’s story and poke at it with a large audience listening; plus, there’s the film Alpha Dog, one of many films to be based on a true story.

These stories always seem to be popular not because humanity is all terrible and that we thrive on another’s misery. But rather, I think we’re a curious species – we like mysteries and puzzles and finding the answers. Or at least, that’s why I’ve listened and consumed that same entertainment. I’d like to think that many at least come from a place of good intentions but I wonder if that’s just the optimist in me.

Others have also wondered why there’s such a cultural obsession with true crime shows and films and if our obsession is a morally and ethically responsible one. Over at Jezebel in 2015, Julianne Escobedo Shepard took a look at why women are so obsessed with the grisly shows on the Investigation Discovery channel. And Kathryn Schulz has an amazing piece over at The New Yorker about why we’re so obsessed with true crime and related shows and how good intentions don’t always translate into the best actions.

I don’t think we should stop talking about crime because doing so will only make getting help for marginalized folks even more difficult. I’m just concerned about the way we currently talk about it. We often treat real life stories as pieces of entertainment, as if there’s not people on the other side just trying desperately to get through what’s probably the worst period of their lives.

For me, there seems to be a line between investigative work in its many forms and entertainment. To put these stories out for the public to see and look at themselves also invites a wave of attention and correspondence for those involved. Hae Min Lee’s brother reportedly slammed the podcast Serial for bringing back the worst experience his family had to go through and presenting it to over five million people.

A few months ago, I wrote about some of the podcasts that I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks and months. In that post (found here), I wrote a bit about this same topic:

*While listening to both Someone Knows Something and Casefile, True Crime, I’ve been thinking about the idea of using someone’s tragedy as entertainment. These podcasts, and many others, take what is probably the worst time in people’s lives and present it to the world for everyone to consume as entertainment. Is there a line between using the tragic events like disappearances and murders to potentially further a cold case and using those same things to further a journalist’s career? While not the first to do so, the hit podcast Serial seemed to really take this idea into a new level and at the same time, brought a whole host of white privilege to the stories of people of color. Some articles related to all this that I’ve been reading include:

All of this is something I think about regularly, especially as someone who has listened to podcasts like Missing Richard Simmons and Serial. While I, like many other listeners, are far removed from the impact that these podcasts have and the stories they look at, I wonder if it’s acceptable that I’m taking part in this same phenomenon. I do think that for those of us in the audience, we shouldn’t contact the people involved if we don’t know them. Hearing from a plethora of random strangers on a regular basis is probably very overwhelming, not including the fact that the ways we hear about these stories might not include all of the details about the situation.

There’s so much that goes into this conversation that I know I haven’t even to think and write about. But this is a topic that I’m always thinking about as someone who’s only been on the audience side of these stories.