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Has true crime become sensationalized? MSU experts, students weigh in

March 19, 2024
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

True crime as a genre of entertainment has become inescapable in popular culture, with podcasts, documentaries, TikTok videos and more oversaturating the media sphere. The real stories of gruesome killings are told over and over again, consumed and theorized upon by people increasingly desensitized to its horrors.

Much debate has been held over how while there are educational and productive benefits that come with the abundance of true crime media in the world, it also contains downfalls, such as the glorification of killers, sensationalization of violence and contributions to missing white woman syndrome.

Michigan State University Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Karen Holt explains that the world’s obsession with true crime is “nothing new - the ethical nuances have just become more complex as the media has evolved.

“We’re attracted to true crime in the same way that we’re attracted to fire or like dangerous things,” Holt said. “We’ve always been fascinated by crime, it's just that our consumption habits and the way we consume it has changed over time.”

Holt recently visited the Peterson House, the theater where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, where she learned that people used to try to take pieces of the carpet and chair where he was killed as memorabilia. Now, in 2024, people are just as obsessed with stories of violence and tragedy.

“I think it almost provides a sense of protection because we think if we watch all these stories and we consume them, maybe we can protect ourselves or we could avoid those situations,” Holt said. “For some people, I think consuming them is almost a way of trying to keep those bad things from happening to (them).” 

As a professor, she said, it can be hard to find common ground with her students as Holt grows further apart from them in age. The one thing that she can always rely on to bridge the gap is serial killers. When she puts pictures of killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy on the board, her students recognize them immediately

“Those images have been burnt into the collective consciousness,” Holt said. “I think it’s easier to focus in on the offender because people want to know why somebody would do that … they want to try to understand that person.”

However, when Holt shows photographs of these killers’ victims to her students, they are almost never recognized. She describes this as a phenomenon called "psychic numbing," which occurs when our brains tune out and become emotionally detached when many people are affected by violence. It’s easier to focus on a single killer rather than their many victims, so cases with large amounts of victims are often reduced to numbers rather than individuals in our memories.

“It can be a little more distressing to think about it from the victim perspective or the survivor perspective,” Holt said

For criminal justice junior Elizabeth Noechel, taking a victim-centered approach is important in consuming true crime ethically. Noechel is the president of MSU’s Cold Case Unit, a club that meets every Tuesday to discuss cases that have gone unsolved. Members examine the details of the cases and theorize what happened and who committed the crime

“You just … always gotta remember that this is someone’s family, this is someone’s friend, this is someone’s someone and that you need to be respectful of that,” Noechel said. “You’re really trying to take a victim centered approach, as opposed to like, popularizing these offenders, because you don’t want to make them the whole focal point of a story.”

Noechel explained that often, when cases “go viral,” most of the attention is given to the offender, while simultaneously smearing the victims’ faces and what they went through all over the media and throughout true crime circles. 

“I think that there needs to be a level of privacy too for the victim (and) for the victim’s family,” Noechel said. “It’s like, if someone you knew were to be a victim of a crime, would you want that person to be blasted all over the internet? Probably not.”

MSU Cold Case Unit, a collaborative investigation team through the School of Criminal Justice, strives to find a balance between keeping the victims’ memories and stories alive and rehashing every gruesome detail of their darkest moments. They want to discuss cold cases as respectfully as possible, taking a victim-centered, educational and justice-driven approach

“One thing I really like about the true crime community is you can always learn something from someone else … Everyone is very knowledgeable about different aspects of cases … Everyone always has something that they can teach you," Noechel said.

Director of MSU’s Forensic Anthropology Laboratory Dr. Carolyn Isaac also recognizes the value in true crime communities when it comes to cases being solved. For many people with missing loved ones or cold cases, finding answers is an important step in the grieving process and being able to move on, Isaac said, and sometimes true crime communities can help when law enforcement has hit a dead end.

“I think it actually is great that there are these kinds of citizen sleuths that have the time and energy to reinvestigate and kind of follow these leads,” Isaac said. “They sometimes can give it more attention than other overworked, underpaid people in law enforcement and cold case units.”

These cases that receive the most attention from the general public, however, tend to all look the same. The disappearances and murders of young, middle class white women get substantially more notice than individuals in marginalized communities. This is a concept called “missing white woman syndrome,” coined by journalist Gwen Ifill to explain the media’s detailed coverage of these cases and simultaneous disregard in covering the cases of people of color.

“It’s really a disservice that … the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women or individuals from marginalized communities, they don’t get the same press and those are probably the individuals who need more press,” Isaac said. 

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Isaac said true crime communities certainly play into this phenomenon, with the most famous cold cases being those in which the victims are white women. Not only is this harmful for the communities whose cases go un-talked about, but the types of cases that are highlighted in the true crime community skew people's perceptions of crime in general, she said.

“I think it makes us more afraid of strangers than the people that we love and trust and that can be a little dangerous,” Holt explained. “We’re looking at cases that are … not necessarily what most crime looks like. And so then we’re kind of getting these blind spots when we think about crime, because we’re not actually worried about the stuff that’s most likely to happen.”

The sensationalization of and fascination with violent crimes can greatly affect the way that consumers see and interact with the world around them. Holt noted that true crime stories are real stories of people's real experiences.

So I think we need to be a little more responsible about how we depict them and why we tell those stories," she said.

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