How has true crime storytelling changed in the last 10 years? What is “the new true crime”? What impact has this narrative shift had on the way people consume true crime?
Crime has long been a staple of American entertainment, from true crime books such as In Cold Blood, to expanded media coverage of high-profile trials such as the OJ Simpson case, the rise of news magazine shows such as Dateline, and the emergence of Court TV. I see the last ten years as continuing a trajectory in television storytelling that seems to have started around the turn of the 21st century. Shows like The Wire and The Sopranos moved away from containing stories within episodes and shifted to long-form narrative with layered intersecting plots and complex characters with warring desires and motivations, and altogether rejecting tidy moral certainty.
True crime in the last ten years is on the same path, moving away from the sensational, familiar, and simplistic. The long-form series I focus on in The New True Crime have more respect for their audiences than in the past. They provide an enormous amount of detail, present multiple, often contradictory perspectives on the cases or elements of the cases, and in general trust their audience to handle more ambiguity, more confusion, and more information. Often the series begin by laying out very thoroughly the prosecution’s case, to the extent that the viewer/listener is convinced of their guilt. Then they reveal holes and contradictions, slowly creating doubt so the audience has to struggle with re-evaluating what they came to believe as true.
Perhaps the most significant difference between these series and traditional true crime is the way they implicate the state. The government becomes the bad guy, and the series offer often searing critiques of power.
You assert in your book that these serialized true crime stories are changing the ways Americans view the criminal justice system. What about these programs is changing the way people think about crime?
The general public comes to entertainment with a different toolbox than it did 20 years ago. “Social Construction” was once a concept confined to the academy, but more and more people are aware of the way different interests try to shape the way we see the world. The general public is already cynical about government, already aware of the deep and troubling relationship between criminal justice and racial oppression, and so they are ready for these new stories.
The shows I focus on expand our knowledge about injustice. These are not salacious stories of stranger danger and serial killers, they are stories about wrongful conviction, they are stories about failures of justice and the dangers of unchecked prosecutorial and police power. They provide very good, sophisticated information about how the system works. They are changing the way we think because they show us coercive interrogations, they show us judges and prosecutors saying and doing things that we might not otherwise believe. Just watch the footage of Brendan Dassey’s first attorney working with him in Netflix’s Making a Murderer. It’s shocking the way he seemed complicit with the prosecutors and encouraged his naïve client to confess. I have a chapter that looks at Redditors responses to the series, and they express clear outrage about this.
Another way these new true crime stories are changing us has to do with how involved people have become in these cases. I point out that the social phenomenon of the New True is a product of new technology. Not just streaming technology but the whole world of web 2.0 – social media, user-generated content, comment sections, blogs, and of course, podcasts. People become more active, energized advocates because we are able to connect and mobilize and debate and get involved with much more momentum and in much larger numbers. Podcasts in particular have a sense of immediacy. Even if listened to weeks or months later, the intimacy of the voice in your headphones feels more direct. I don’t know if Adnan Syed’s release would have been front page news if Serial had been a radio program in 1999.
Serial famously helped overturn Adnan Syed’s conviction. Making a Murderer and Atlanta Monster also cast doubts on convictions. What does it mean that podcasts and TV shows can have this much impact on the criminal justice system?
The role Serial played in Adnan’s release is not entirely clear, and Sarah Koenig has not wanted to take credit for this. However, his release would not have been front page national news were it not for Serial. Koenig’s work certainly affected the case. She brought critical attention to many gaping holes in it and the enormous amount of support and advocacy Adnan received following Serial is a phenomenon in its own right. Supporters actively looked for more evidence, and Adnan’s appeals attorney referred to it as the first crowd-sourced investigation.
But in the bigger picture, Adnan’s release is part of the larger reform movement that these series are products of at the same time that they contribute to it. Adnan was released because of changes in Maryland’s legal culture. Specifically, the introduction of conviction integrity units – which are the result of innocence projects and criminal justice reform efforts, and Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act that allows people convicted as juveniles to request a reduced sentence after serving twenty years. In the course of going through old cases, the office came upon problems in Adnan’s file, including evidence of other possible suspects. Prosecutors no longer had “confidence in the integrity of the conviction.” The state allowed for additional DNA testing that ruled him out as a suspect, and a month after his emotionally charged release from prison, all charges were finally dropped.
All the series I look at cast serious doubt on the convictions they cover. An important precursor to the recent ones is The Paradise Lost trilogy, which, interestingly, documents the role the documentary played in the eventual release, through an Alford Plea, of the defendants known as the West Memphis Three. After the first documentary aired on HBO, viewers took to chatrooms, which were new at the time, and began advocating for them, generating much more interest in the case. The role viewers and listeners play in these cases is part of what I argue makes these series “new,” as does the impact of the series on the actual cases, including uncovering new evidence and creating new leads. The life of the series in the “real world” is an important part of what differentiates them from traditional true crime.
What should true crime fans take away from your book? Do you think there’s a way to consume true crime media while still advocating for criminal justice reform?
I would like fans of true crime to take away an understanding of how crime entertainment is related to larger issues in criminal justice and society, whether that be in a positive or negative way. In the book I talk about the relationship between media and entertainment, fear of crime, and electoral politics. True crime fans will learn about the social value and potential of these series, and also about the ways they are problematic.
Absolutely fans can consume true crime as entertainment and still be advocates. This is what critical thinking is for. The series on wrongful conviction take their time to foster this kind of thinking in their audiences, and my book goes even farther at looking at our media landscape and how it shapes politics, culture and crime and justice. In The New True Crime, I examine how the US focus on severe punishment and how the goals of deterrence and retribution are more and more coming into question along with the ease with which we continue to frame the socially marginalized and undesirable as the “bad guys” we feel justified in punishing and banishing.
The book is also valuable in the other direction. Many scholars and criminal justice professionals aren’t necessarily versed in media and culture and this book provides ways of considering their impact and integrating popular culture into critical criminologies.
Finally, I hope the book encourages readers to think about how these questions have particular urgency in the world we find ourselves in now – one that seems comprised of two different realities and has been characterized as the post-truth era. The calls for criminal justice reform, racial justice measures, and an end to mass incarceration are being met with a doubling down on law-and-order measures that we have seen politicians such as Eric Adams in NYC benefiting from.
What role do groups like The Innocence Project play in new true crime? How do advocacy and media intersect in the new true crime?
The Innocence Project is vital to the New True. The Innocence Project has done a great job not only in securing exonerations for hundreds of wrongfully incarcerated people, but has done an equally great job in publicizing the issue. It has used storytelling to great effect. Innocence lawyers are regularly featured in the new true crime. They are interviewed to provide background information, context, and opinion, and their efforts on behalf of the defendants are closely chronicled as the cases unfold. Innocence lawyers are key to new true crime storytelling.
Where do you see true crime storytelling going from here? What kind of effect do you think podcasts and docu-series will continue to have on the ways we think about issues like prison abolition and police reform?
True crime storytelling continues to grow and transform itself. There is always a need to find a new spin, a new twist or hook. For one thing, these are media products. Regardless of their social benefit, they need to make money for the platforms they are viewed on. Netflix and Max are just as crucial as innocence lawyers in this sense.
Already we see new directions. Mind Over Murder that came out last year on Max looks at a fascinating and disturbing wrongful conviction case from the 1980s, but has an emphasis on the toll this injustice took on the entire community. It looks at the after-effects of the exoneration, including the financial burden of restitution.
A podcast last year, Murder in Alliance, starts from the familiar wrongful conviction formula, examining an old conviction with the intent of proving the subject’s innocence, but takes a turn as the investigators begin to see that he did in fact probably do it after all.
As for prison abolition and police reform, an important documentary series in this regard, and one which hasn’t gotten enough attention as far as I’m concerned, is Free Meek on Amazon Prime. This looks at the after-effects of a conviction and the ways the conditions of probation create unjust and unmanageable restrictions on people to the extent that they cannot get out from the system. In other words, it looks at how unjust the system is on those who are guilty – it questions our laws and our system of punishment in a way the wrongful conviction series do not. In a sense, the new true crime documentaries on wrongful conviction let us off the hook for the worst aspects of our criminal justice system and what I call “the will to punish” – our collective impulses toward harsh retribution that is manifest in draconian practices such as solitary confinement. I would like to think there will be more documentaries tackling this in the future.
Diana Rickard is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. She is the author of Sex Offenders, Stigma, and Social Control.