Is True Crime Ethical?

People find true crime so fascinating because it allows us as an audience to attempt to solve the problem, and we become actively involved throughout the course of the story. True crime reading, watching, and listening provides us with plenty of opportunities for which our minds naturally come up with answers to the issues. But, the utilization of true crime stories for entertainment is unethical because it exploits victims and their families while making a profit off of violent, tragic stories.

Although producers argue that true crime helps bring about justice for victims and teaches people important lessons, some true crime story creators distort the truth to gain more viewers and profit off of the misery of others. The new Netflix documentary, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, is an example of profiting off of the victims and their misery by utilizing a celebrity to portray the offender for viewer count. This strategy has shown success for the creators, as true crime is one of the most watched genres on Netflix, as of 2022. In her article, Shivani Dubey examines Netflix true crime statistics: “Between July 2020 and March 2021, Netflix released 18 true crime related shows – and that number has only increased since”.As true crime is one of the fastest-growing entertainment genres among younger generations, it raises a number of ethical concerns. Netflix, in particular,  has faced backlash concerning the ethics surrounding their Jeffrey Dahmer documentary.

True crime ethics have become a more significant issue as the entertainment industry produces more non-fictional material. This issue depends on a number of factors, including the case and the producers’ goal. Along the true crime continuum, every story develops differently. Oftentimes the first step in a case is a 911 call or report of a missing individual. If the case is deemed interesting enough, local news outlets will report on it, and minor crimes such as vandalism are recorded by the local police. However, these miniscule crimes lack the cinematic appeal that news outlets seek. In cases of more serious infractions, news organizations will forward the story to their parent company in which investigative reporters may take up the story from there. The most read headlines eventually become movies, documentaries, or mini-series. As they say, if it bleeds, it leads.

It’s difficult to navigate the ethical landscape of true crime. While some violent movies are solely intended to amuse popcorn-eating horror aficionados, others watch true crime to gain a fresh perspective on a contentious case. It’s crucial to remember that these stories are about real individuals. While Netflix is not breaking laws by producing content based on true stories, true crime ethics are often considered a grey area.When creators start utilizing these violent stories for views, true crime becomes unethical.  Highlighting entertainment and profit rather than the factual side of the tragedy and distorting facts becomes an unethical attempt to gain more cinematic appeal.