You go to your computer. You see a headline for something clickbait-y, maybe “Insane murder finally solved thirty years later”, or “Who did it? Murder Analysis” or “Was [This Missing Person]’s Case Actually a Murder?” The thumbnails range from people making the stereotypical Youtube thumbnail ‘shocked’ face to pictures of the victim, the suspect, and everything in between.
Seems a little weird, right? Feels a little wrong? The same format used to post and boost recipe hacks on Youtube is being used to advertise true crime podcasts, chase clout, and earn fame, and listeners are beginning to realize what the bottom chunk of the true crime community is turning into.
The Idea Is Sometimes Good
Blasting the details of a missing persons case around town or across the internet is nothing new. The more people know something’s amiss, the more likely that amiss thing is to be corrected. Missing kids might be reunited with their families if some stranger recognizes them from the back of the milk carton, and sometimes calls for witnesses who may have seen or heard something produce useful information.
The original concept for cold case podcasts was similar – if enough people hear about it, one of those listeners might actually have some useful info that leads to the case being reopened and the mystery solved! And sometimes it did. There are a scattered handful of cold cases that were solved (or at least got a very probable answer) thanks to the wide reach of the True Crime genre. True Crime picked up a sort of altruistic bent to it thanks to this mindset, but it also subconsciously gained the far more damaging idea that a case is always eventually solvable if only enough people hear about it. If a tree falls in the woods, someone heard it.
Here is where the problems start. While some people reach out to these podcasts in order to spread the word about their case, many of the folks involved in cold cases don’t, not for a lack of knowledge about the good they could do, but because they don’t want to. They don’t believe the internet can solve it, and they want to move on.
The Victims’ Families
And that’s their right as the survivors. Treatment of the victim’s families as another willing part of the show is one of the biggest reasons all of Online True Crime’s flaws are coming to a head. People chase entertainment. They chase recognition. They seek out Q and As by authors and writers. Whodunnits always end with the bad guy thrown in jail. But that’s fiction. True Crime is, literally, true crimes. Nonfiction. Stuff that’s only public knowledge because of how crime reporting laws work. The effect is worse if it’s an unsolved cold case.
Because the cold case is a cold case due to lack of evidence, the first solution True Crime fans come up with is to procure new evidence. Given the case has already been touched by police and P.I.s, there may not be any new or overlooked evidence. Sometimes, rarely, there is – but if there is, it’s likely somewhere civilians can’t reach it, either in an evidence locker somewhere, the bottom of a river, inside private property, etc. Lacking new physical evidence, all they have left to explore is witness testimony.
This has, in some cases, lead to the victims’ family being treated like part of an ARG or an escape room where a neat and tidy answer not only exists, but exists within reach of the true crime community, and they’re supposed to be able to find it. If they could just find one or two more pieces of evidence, they could solve a murder! If the family could just reveal one or two more juicy details over Twitter DMs to a total stranger, they could win the game and solve the crime like they’re supposed to. As a reminder, not all of the victims’ families and friends have been asked beforehand if they want to be a part of this. If they’re unlucky enough to be findable, and the show’s big enough for some fans to ignore common sense… well.
While sometimes families are eagerly waiting for new info, anything at all that a podcast might dredge up, some are just trying to move on with their lives when a stranger pops into their DMs asking them to recount the worst day they’ve ever had, reopening old wounds only to get nothing new out of it.
Major props to the true crime groups that actually ask first if living relatives want a case covered – not all of the shows do.
Lies and Speculation
This desire for a neat and tidy answer can still create problems even if it doesn’t turn into interrogating the family.
As I covered in another article, sometimes the facts of the case aren’t consistent across shows… because some of them are stretching the truth, failing to research a claim, or otherwise omitting or including something that would re-frame the case. Other shows speculate, and they speculate for so long and so confidently that fans, who sometimes have no previous knowledge of a given case, believe the speculation to be more, even if the hosts didn’t mean for it to be interpreted that way. (This is not universal, but pops up sometimes even in reputable shows.)
Pointing at someone and saying “this is the most suspicious guy” isn’t necessarily a crime by itself, but if nothing is proven, and there’s not an obvious source of corruption or flaws in the case that could have led to that guy being wrongfully cleared, then it’s just more speculation. This is generally fine if everyone has been dead for some time, but doing it to people who are still alive can create problems for them, to nobody’s surprise. Are most murders and kidnappings done by someone close to the victim? Yes. Is it right to start pointing fingers just because there’s not another tidy answer? No. This isn’t a whodunnit – there doesn’t have to be a ‘solution’ within reach. Grabbing at straws does not a case solve.
While it didn’t start this way, many newer online true crime shows have some sort of gimmick. Some of the hosts do their makeup, some eat food, others show animations on screen while describing the case. The depersonalization of listening to someone describe a cold case as casually as they’d describe their workday while doing something like mukbang turns the case from a genuine rehashing of events into a dash of entertainment, a little sprinkle of someone else’s tragedy to get through boring homework or a commute. The attitude of True Crime as a genre has come into question because some of the hosts are treating it like show fodder first and real life events second. As a reminder, many cold case victims have family that is both alive and online to witness these videos. A casual giggle over a detail of a case isn’t so casual for them.
True crime can’t continue the way it’s going. The lack of care and mindfulness in covering the cases is starting to rot away the foundations of online true crime. Nobody wants their loved one best remembered as covered by “Boyfriend Kills Girlfriend for Saying Ex’s Name – Spicy Noodle MukBang” videos. The genre is serious – but not all of these show hosts are treating it with the care it deserves.