In the realm of media and entertainment, the insatiable public appetite for gripping, real-life narratives has propelled the rise of one particular genre; true crime.

From podcasts and movies to videos on YouTube and TikTok, the last decade has witnessed unparalleled demand for crime stories. However, this surge prompts questions regarding the ethical issues inherent in true crime. By condemning the transgression of principles, the romanticised portrayal of perpetrators, and the dramatisation of suffering perpetuated by content creators, we can advocate for transformative legislation to harness the positive potential of the genre.

A glaring ethical issue present in true crime is the violation of consent and privacy of victims and families. Currently, media companies and influencers don’t require their consent when publishing content. The names, ages, backgrounds, and family details of victims are often laid bare for public consumption. This is overwhelming for victims and families, as their most painful and intimate experiences are shared with the world without their permission.

Additionally, these vulnerable stakeholders are subjected to online scrutiny, where netizens give unsolicited opinions and commentary. This reopens the scars left by the ordeals, as exemplified by Netflix’s recent docuseries Monster – Jeffrey Dahmer (2022). The families of Dahmer’s victims were not even informed of the production. Eric Perry, cousin of victim Errol Lindsey, tweeted, “it’s re-traumatising over and over again, and for what?”.

While some argue that the sympathy generated from productions could help families heal, it is imperative to recognise that individuals process sympathy in different ways. Even if sympathy comes from a well-meaning place, if it is uninvited, it may cause feelings of exposure and stress. Therefore, consent must be mandated to end the unethical violation of principles for monetary gain.

Another pressing ethical concern is the romanticised portrayal of perpetrators for increased viewership. Humans, in having adrenaline-craving brains and an inherent fascination with tragedy, are naturally attracted to crime.

Casting conventionally attractive actors to play serial killers, for example Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Netflix’s 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, exacerbates this attraction to a dangerous level. This promotes the toxic fan culture surrounding criminals on media platforms, portraying them as brooding, romantic ‘bad boys’. It gives perpetrators the spotlight and awe, whilst victims are shunned into the shadows.

The real-life consequences of romanticisation were seen in Cameron Herrin’s vehicular homicide case. Due to his physically attractive appearance, netizens on TikTok and Twitter rallied for sentence reduction through the #JusticeForCameron trend. However, this mostly contained irrelevant videos, such as fan edits of his face and highlight reels of his ‘hottest moments in court’, where netizens dubbed him “too cute to go to jail”. A ‘’ petition for sentence reduction was created by fans and signed over 28,000 times, demonstrating how the romanticisation of killers in media has influenced the public to condone the actions of attractive criminals.

This was further confirmed by a 2010 Cornell University study, revealing, “in criminal cases, better-looking defendants receive lower sentences”. Hence, we must hold media producers accountable for romanticised content to stop glorifying the legacies of killers and trivialising their heinous crimes. As consumers, we must remain vigilant and conscious in remembering the monster behind the dazzling smile; a cold-blooded killer.

Furthermore, another ethical dilemma in true crime is the dramatisation of narratives for audience retention. True crime has surged in popularity recently, with a 60% increase in consumption in the US from 2020-2021. This was achieved through insensitive and exaggerated portrayals of people and events to create a ‘juicier’ story, exploiting the victims’ suffering and trauma for entertainment.

As exemplified by the true crime podcast Rotten Mango, content creators often create fictional characterisations of the people involved in the stories for their drama-hungry consumers. They fabricate victims’ thoughts and emotions during the ordeal based on their personal assumptions, which is insensitive to the memory of the victims. In response to Netflix’s Dahmer docuseries, Rita Isbell, sister of a victim, expressed her wish for Netflix to provide tangible benefits such as money to victims’ families. She stated, “if the show benefitted [the victims] in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless.” Hence, the dramatisation of crime narratives for entertainment purposes must be restricted, and fictional fabrications of the ordeals banned.

The presently unethical and insensitive genre of true crime demands key changes to harness its positive potential.

We must implement legislation that mandates consent, holds media producers accountable for romanticised content, and restricts dramatisation of narratives.

This will transform the genre into a positive force that empowers those who have endured similar experiences, condemns perpetrators, provides support and closure to victims’ loved ones, and genuinely commemorates victims. By implementing these changes, true crime will evolve into an ethical and empathetic form of media that positively impacts our society.


True crime media: An ethical dilemma‘ by Jessica Liu is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.   

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