5 Things podcast: Americans are obsessed with true crime. Is that a good thing?

5 Things podcast: Americans are obsessed with true crime. Is that a good thing?


Taylor Wilson
 USA TODAY.oembed-frame{width:100%;height:100%;margin:0;border:0}

On a special episode of the 5 Things podcast: 

It’s no secret that we’re obsessed with true crime. In recent years, the storytelling genre has dominated television, film, books and perhaps most commonly, podcasts. Many point to the success of the 2014 podcast Serial as the genesis of this recent boom, but fascination with violent crimes and the mysteries around them goes far deeper. Amanda Lee Myers, a longtime crime reporter who covers trending news for USA TODAY, joins the podcast to explain why we care so much about true crime stories and shares her insights on who these stories help and who they harm.

Podcasts: True crime, in-depth interviews and more USA TODAY podcasts right here

Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

Taylor Wilson:

Hello and welcome to Five Things. I’m Taylor Wilson, and today is Sunday, October 29th, 2023.

It’s no secret that we’re obsessed with true crime. In recent years, the storytelling genre has dominated television, film, books and perhaps, most commonly, podcasts. Many point to the success of the 2014 podcast Serial as the genesis for this recent boom, but fascination with violent crimes and the mysteries around them goes far deeper. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. Why do we care so much about true crime stories and who do they help and aren’t?

To find out more, I’m now joined by Amanda Lee Myers, a longtime crime reporter who covers trending news for USA Today. Amanda, thanks for joining me.

Amanda Lee Myers:

Thanks so much. Happy to join you today.

Taylor Wilson:

Let’s start with the blurring of the line between crime and entertainment. The Gabby Petito case from 2021 is just one among many where people across the country were transfixed.

To remind our listeners, that was the woman who was on a trip across the country with her boyfriend when she suddenly went missing under suspicious circumstances. A few weeks later, Amanda, her remains were found, and then an autopsy revealed that she’d been strangled to death. This begs the question, at what point does a fascination for true crime blur into a macabre consumption of true crime as entertainment?

Amanda Lee Myers:

It’s really easy to write off true crime as simply macabre, you know, and a lot of it is macabre. There’s a wide range of quality out there, and the bad actors can really give the genre a bad name. You’d have pieces that include every gory, lurid detail as possible, and don’t focus enough on the victims who the crime impacted the most, emotions involved, what was lost, things like that. And I’ve noticed with crimes that are happening in real time, like the Gabby Petito case, or even as far back as the OJ Simpson trial, you have people being absolutely riveted by every little update, and that really drives demand and can create a sort of mania around a story.

And one thing that the media is pretty good at is feeding into mania and social media to me is really raising the stakes here because you have a lot of amateurs getting into this. Not a lot of them have a lot of background in journalism ethics and naming victims, showing victim photos, including every single detail. You get the feeling that a lot of people aren’t stopping and questioning just because I can report every single detail, should I?

Taylor Wilson:

Yeah. I mean, related to Petito is also this idea of Missing White Women Syndrome. It’s a trope that we’ve seen pop up when some argue that true crime disproportionately focuses on stories about white women specifically, which Gabby Petito was one of. Does the data back that up, Amanda? And why might this trope be harmful?

Amanda Lee Myers:

You could just look historically and anecdotally at the genre, it’s a huge problem. Until recent history, you pretty much exclusively see coverage about white victims, particularly if they’re women, particularly if they’re attractive. And that has been disastrous for victims who are people of color. Whatever else you want to say about true crime, it can draw attention to a case. It can help solve cases.

And also, I mean, just imagine how that feels to people of color. What does that say to them when we’re focusing only on the stories of white women and not victims who are Black and Latina? What is that telling them about their importance in the world? So it’s been a huge problem, but fortunately, we’re seeing some improvements here. And at the very least, an acknowledgement that it is a problem.

Taylor Wilson:

Who are the other major demographics when it comes to consuming true crime media and what’s the biggest draw?

Amanda Lee Myers:

The Pew Research Center recently did a survey about this, and I think the results would be surprising to some people, especially given what we know about White Woman Syndrome. But they found that 43% of true crime fans are Latino, and 36% are Black, and 34% are white. They talk to 5,000 people so take that with a grain of salt, but the Pew Research Center does excellent polling.

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We’re seeing more and more true crime expanding to focus on victims who are people of color, and it’s just like Hollywood. So people relate to stories that reflect their own experience and culture. And now you have podcasts like Sister Who Kill, which is about Black women who commit murder. And then there’s So Violento So Macabro and Criminalista Nocturno, which focus on Latino true crime stories.

Taylor Wilson:

And I want to get into the impact of true crime consumption on its fans. First, let’s talk about the primary audience here, Amanda. The New York Times recently cited a 2010 study that found around 70% of Amazon reviews of true crime books are by women, compared with 82% of reviews of war books, for example, by men. You know, these are both violent topics. So why do women gravitate more toward true crime?

Amanda Lee Myers:

The fact is, and this is borne out in the research, anecdotally among women I know, women have more fear in their daily lives than men do. Women buy mace. We keep our keys out when we walk to our car to use as a potential weapon if something happens. Many of us actively avoid pumping gas at night. Women are much more likely to be victims of a serial killer or a domestic partner. So we actually have a lot to learn from the true crime genre.

And I think this happened subconsciously and consciously. I think it’s part of our survival instinct to kind of listen to other stories about women who didn’t survive and women who did survive to glean any lessons that we can use in our daily lives. You know, maybe warning signs of a domestic partner who could be violent or self-defense tactics if something were to go wrong, just a bit of quick thinking.

I think women also tend to be really empathetic, and these stories can really capture our emotions. We see our sisters, we see our mothers, our best friends. We see ourselves reflected in these victims. Learning more about the victims in these cases it’s a way to keep their legacy alive, but also help us as women avoid being victims of crime ourselves.

Taylor Wilson:

Do you see true crime as healthy for its consumers, or does it possibly normalize gruesome violence as well?

Amanda Lee Myers:

It’s just like anything else. You have to take it in moderation.

Dr. Chivonna Childs of the Cleveland Clinic recently spoke to this. She said that watching true crime doesn’t make you strange or weird, that it’s just part of human nature to be inquisitive. I actually have a quote from her I wrote down. “True crime appeals to us because we get a glimpse into the mind of a real person who has committed a heinous act. We want to see how they tick, and that’s totally normal and healthy.”

There is such a thing as overdoing it over. Overconsuming true crime can cause people to be overly fearful to the point where they don’t want to leave the house. It can trigger things like quadruple checking your locks on the doors and windows, bad sleep at night, things that kind of interfere with your daily life. She recommends, as do other psychologists, if you’re feeling some of those things, if you have increased symptoms of anxiety, maybe you’re consuming a little too much. I mean you might need to turn on some Ted Lasso or Great British Bake-Off or something.

Taylor Wilson:

This type of storytelling, Amanda, touches on real people and real victims and their families and we talk a lot about this idea of harm reduction in journalism. We talk about it right here on the show when making decisions as well. It sometimes feels to me that a lot of the content, not all, of course, but a lot of the content in the true crime sphere does not prioritize this principle. Is true crime re-traumatizing for victims and their families?

Amanda Lee Myers:

It absolutely can be, and it’s something I’ve witnessed, time and time again, covering crime over the years, seeing cameraman shove cameras in the faces of people whose daughter was killed, for instance. There’s been way too much reporting without sensitivity to what people are going through, and there’s a focus on perpetrators a lot of times, rather than victims and survivors. And the effect of that can really feel like a glorification of violence and crimes. If you’re doing it responsibly your duty is really more to the victims and their families. Who were they? Why were they loved? What made them special?

And I think the best true crime works really get into those questions, and the best authors and producers lead with humanity and sensitivity, and it can actually have the opposite effect of re-traumatizing them. It can actually be very healing for families because I’ve talked to many family members, victims over the years, who end up feeling like their loved one is being remembered for more than just how they died. And I think that’s how it should be.

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Taylor Wilson:

Let’s consider some other possible upshots here. True crime shows have been credited with bringing dozens of elusive criminals to justice. They’ve also helped find kidnap children, reunited victims with their families. What are the arguments here for the good outweighing the bad?

Amanda Lee Myers:

There’s a perfect case study for this that I actually recently covered myself, and it’s the Kristin Smart Case in San Luis Obispo in the central coast of California. So this case was ice cold for years. Kristin Smart was 19 years old, college student. She disappeared in 1996, and by the time I found out about the case in 2019, there’d been no arrest. There’d been really no significant movement whatsoever, despite a pretty obvious suspect in retrospect.

So none of this came to light until a man named Chris Lambert started a podcast called Your Own Backyard. And so Chris ended up uncovering a wealth of information and turning up new details and talking to key witnesses. And sure enough, like within two years, police later arrested a long-time person of interest in the case named Paul Flores. Since then, Paul Flores has been convicted of murdering Kristin Smart and he’s been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

I just think of Kristin’s poor parents. You know, for 25 years, they lived without a resolution. They lived without any sort of justice for their daughter, and all of that changed largely because of a podcast. So I think a thousand percent the good is always going to outweigh the bad, even if you have one Kristin Smart case in a million.

Taylor Wilson:

And on the opposite side of the coin, some of these types of storytelling can also exonerate folks. I think a lot of us remember Serial: Season One as this groundbreaking example of the medium, and then we got to the end of it and there seemed to be more questions than answers. Then years later, it proved influential in getting Adnan Syed out of prison. When it comes to getting innocent people exonerated, does true crime journalism actually contribute?

Amanda Lee Myers:

Absolutely, it does. I used to cover the death penalty. I’ve personally witnessed 11 executions, and I always said that even one innocent person, whether it’s on the death penalty or just in prison, is too many. Over the years, we know and there’s really no way to quantify this, but true crime has helped solve cases and help potentially innocent people get more attention on their shady convictions, on arrests that violated their civil rights. Responsible true crime journalism is priceless. I mean, it can really give someone their life back.

Taylor Wilson:

You know, we think of true crime and we think of podcasts, as I said at the top, as maybe the first type of this storytelling. We think of Netflix and other streaming documentaries as well as the home for these stories, but they actually go back further than that. Where did they originate?

Amanda Lee Myers:

Humans have always been fascinated by crime. Crime pamphlets were huge in England in the 1500s. We know of many serial killer cases over the years, hundreds of years ago that got attention. The United States had a true crime magazine in the 1920s called True Detective, and that sold millions of copies. And then you have the seminal work of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in 1966, and I really think that shook the world and it paved the way for the genre as we know it today.

I mean, just in the next decade after Capote writes this book, we have the 1970s where serial killers skyrocketed. There was a major increase in serial killers, and that just increased the fascination with them, what motivates them, those sorts of things we see picked apart all the time in all sorts of media these days. But after you saw these serial killers all over the place in the ’70s, you really saw the rise in authors like Ann Rule, who was the queen of the genre in the 1980s with books like The Stranger Beside Me, which was about Ted Bundy.

Taylor Wilson:

And going forward, I’ve noticed a few of these trends here recently, especially, we talked about Gabby Petito earlier, TikTok, true crime journalism and some of this stuff happening on social media, but podcasts are still very popular, streamers are still very popular. What do you think is the future of true crime?

Amanda Lee Myers:

This is kind of a tough one because, I mean, we know true crime is wildly popular. We know there are a lot of amateurs getting into the game with mixed success. You have people on TikTok who create the cringe-worthy content, but then you have your Your Own Backyard podcasts that are changing lives. Overall, the genre is varying so wildly in quality these days because anyone can get into it. At some point, I think there’s going to be an oversaturation of the bad products out there.

Taylor Wilson:

All right. Longtime crime reporter Amanda Lee Myers with some fantastic insight for us here on Five Things. Thank you, Amanda.

Amanda Lee Myers:

You’re welcome. Thank you so much.

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