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Why are we so obsessed with true crime?

As part of our Real World Questions event series, Programme & Student Lead for Policing Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen discussed our obsession with true crime. With an academic background in psychology and criminology and front-line experience as a police constable, Jennifer is in the perfect position to give us a unique insight into our love for true crime, from Netflix’s Making A Murderer to the My Favourite Murder podcast.

Why is watching true crime dramas so addictive?

From podcasts to true crime documentaries to detective novels, it’s not difficult to imagine why true crime media has become so popular. Here are a few of the most popular theories.

True crime gives an insight into our culture and norms as well as our anxieties and values. Researcher and author Coltan Scrivner states the popularity of true crime, the success of horror films and the quantity of violence in the news suggests that “morbid curiosity is a common psychological trait”. It feeds our natural desire to solve puzzles and mysteries.

It also gives us an insight into why other people may act the way they do and allows us to examine the darker sides of humanity from a safe distance. We can vicariously experience extreme situations (i.e., allows us to experience physical and emotional responses from the safety of our home).

A 2010 study by the University of Illinois (Vicary and Fraley, 2010) suggests that true crime stories are particularly popular with women, which may link to their fear of being victimised.

We can therefore hypothesize that consuming content about crime may provide us with a feeling of control and knowledge about an inherently uncertain and often anxiety-provoking world. It is also worth remembering that, as humans, we are designed to pay particular attention to certain features, which helps us to learn and gather information. For example, threatening information often spreads very fast (e.g., Blaine & Boyer, 2018 as cited in Scrivner 2021). Evolutionary this makes sense as an awareness of threat can be useful to us in several ways including safety.

 

What sort of psychological impact does a love for watching true crime dramas can have on modern society?

We need to remember that the media (whether it is print, broadcast or online) is not neutral. For example, different newspapers have different political and ideological leanings (Newburn, 2017). Media does not report reality, it reports versions of reality. Crime documentaries are edited in a particular way (ibid). As future police officers and criminal justice practitioners, it is important that policing students can recognise when stereotypes and biases occur in media reporting.

We can assume that criminal justice media will affect perceptions and expectations of the legal system. This is concerning in light of the use of binary divides that we often see in media representations, where people are presented as either ‘good’ or ‘evil’. This crude oversimplification clearly lacks ecological validity and does not do justice to the complex nature of reality. For example, criminals are often portrayed as outsiders or as ‘other’ and the focus is on the unusual. Sex workers and other vulnerable groups, on the other hand, can be presented by the media as less worthy of victim status and we still find myths out there about how ‘a true victim’ should behave. For example, Booth, Willmott, Boduszek, (2017 p. 662) found strong evidence that high levels of rape bias, and preconceived prejudices, seemed to have significantly greater influence on the fairness of a trial than had previously been thought.

A phenomenon that also needs to be considered when addressing this question is the “CSI Effect”. This is a phenomenon that is related to viewing forensic and crime-based television shows. It describes the idea that viewing crime dramas will provide the public, and especially jurors, with unrealistic expectations of forensic science. However, while this is often seen as an issue by legal actors and police this effect has not been fully empirically supported, and evidence is conflicting.

All of that said, it is also important to acknowledge that the media can sometimes help to solve crimes. For example, publicising cases can lead to witnesses coming forwards.

 

Is there any cause for concern when it comes to the nation's appetite to consume true crime dramas?

Consuming high amounts of television or other media can of course impact an individual’s beliefs and behaviour. Whether there is cause for concern will depend on several factors including the effect that the consumption of crime dramas has on both an individual and societal level. If as an individual, you are watching a lot of true crime dramas and it is making you overly fearful or anxious then it may be wise to take a break from it.

Another potential, and indeed quite significant, concern is that the media can distort our perceptions of crime, for example by focusing specifically on sensationalist crime (Newburn, 2017). In reality, it is the mundane crimes that make up most of what police officers are likely to be dealing with (petty theft, petty robbery and small level violence) (ibid).

This can also tie into the fear of crime because a lack of knowledge of crime statistics and overconsumption of certain types of media can give the perception that one is more likely to become a victim of crime than may be statistically true.

As illustrated by figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), over many years, the fear of crime can be seen as an important public health issue in itself as it can impact quality of life. This is because people make decisions about their behaviour based on their perceived risk based on their fear of crime and it has been shown that the fear of crime and the actual risk are not the same and can differ quite substantially.

Another important potential issue is that there can also be a danger here when it comes to the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes. When crimes perpetrated by, or seen to be associated with, a particular group in society are over-reported it gives the impression that people from that group are disproportionately involved in crime and are stereotyped as criminals.

Lastly, we also need to remember that authors want to sell books and that editors and companies want to sell newspapers or want high ratings for their shows (Newburn, 2017). Therefore, there is a tendency to go for a sensational approach and to grab people’s attention. It is only more recently that we have heard about crimes such as domestic abuse, domestic violence, environmental crime and crimes committed by those in positions of power.

 

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