Is our obsession with true-crime changing the process of investigative work?

by Lucy Pugh

You don’t have to look far to see how stories of true crime are all over our TV screens. Usually, the focus is on the most gruesome, bizarre and grisly narratives imaginable and on the most heinous of all criminal acts: murder.

Netflix has brought us the likes of Making a Murderer, Evil Genius, The Ted Bundy Tapes and most recently, The Disappearance of Madeline McCann – a case which in particular has roused an inextinguishable interest in the minds of the public for decades.

So, what is it about our obsession with the sinister and disturbed?  Our fascination with true crime shows is complex and multifaceted. People are enthralled and excited by crime and the criminal mind in the same way as car crashes, natural disasters or train wrecks. Although what you are seeing is awful, in its horror you just can’t stop watching. The spectacle feels impossible to turn your head from!

Production platforms like Netflix have facilitated this gentrification of gore. With series lasting seasons long, we can sink ourselves into hours of storytelling, allowing for people to become more invested than ever in stories of true crime.

So, we can all agree that we live in a culture obsessed with crime, but what effect does this have on the investigative process?

Crucially, the craze of crime on TV brings difficult but important topics to the forefront of public discourse and gives exposure to serious criminal issues, whilst also allowing the everyday Netflix-binger to better understand the criminal justice system.

Just take Making a Murderer; the true story of Avery, a Wisconsin man convicted of murdering a local photographer, Teresa Halbach. The show gained international attention. There was a frenzy of speculation over whether Avery had killed Halbach or whether he had been, as the series suggests, a victim of police misconduct.

At the beginning of the trailer for Making a Murderer, Steven Avery says, ‘I didn’t think all of these people would care’. But they did. Since Making a Murderer hit our screens in 2015, it has become a cultural phenomenon with millions invested in his story. In fact, as confirmed by the business insider, the show got nineteen million viewers in the US alone within the first thirty-five days of its airing. With the general conception that he is an innocent man, the attention the show has put on the case has been key to his fight for an appeal. Sceptics criticise true crime features for their trivialisation of humanity’s evils, but it can’t be doubted that the exposure of Avery’s tale has brought a level of international awareness to ongoing miscarriages of justice that deserve to be made known.

Unsurprisingly, there are also drawbacks to this cultural obsession for crime documentaries. Academics came up with the term ‘the CSI effect’. This is the belief that crime programs are skewing jurors’ courtroom expectations, ultimately making it more difficult to win their cases and convict defendants. Things are often oversimplified or exaggerated for effect in these TV shows, causing people to build misconceptions about the Criminal Justice System. In particular, research has shown that jurors are much less likely to convict if there isn’t any forensic, CSI style evidence, even when there is other compelling evidence of guilt.

The law in its codified form is pretty inaccessible. But it seems like true crime gives us all an insight into the investigation process at its various stages in ways that are both entertaining and understandable. After all, the public interest is a significant concern in judicial rulings every single day.

It seems like in the fight for justice it can play a good and a bad role.

Regardless, whether or not the rising popularity of crime shows is a good thing, one thing’s for sure: we just can’t stop watching!