Analyzing the media of violent crimes: Has the reporting of true crime become sensationalized?

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

After a gruesome murder at the University of Idaho took over the news cycle, many are pointing out the increasingly blurred lines between sensationalization and awareness. For as long as we have had media, true crime has always been a noticeable presence. However, newer forms of media consumption, such as TikTok and Instagram, along with social media algorithms, have made the genre a more consistent presence in most people’s lives, while also encouraging an almost fan-like behavior around it.

This, in large part, can be attributed to the increasing ability to profit from telling true crime stories. Whether it be sponsored videos about gruesome murders or true crime cases split into multiple episodes for higher view counts, the reporting of these cases has quickly veered away from raising awareness and bringing justice to the victims to the commodification of trauma. 

Oftentimes, the victim’s family is not consulted before these traumatic events are repeatedly rehashed and commented on and do not receive any profit from it. 

In addition, the way these true crime cases have been recounted multiple times in various media allows their creators to prey on people’s fears — specifically white women. 

This phenomenon, aptly named “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” means that the media disproportionately reports on cases regarding white women even if they are just a small  part of the actual cases.

These fear-mongering tendencies lead many to create an almost speculative fiction around their own victimization. 

For example, a recent trend on TikTok has seen many white women creating so-called “DNA Binders” in case they become a victim of a violent crime. Concurrently, many of the retellings of these stories also center on attractive, white killers who are played by conventionally attractive actors such as Evan Peters or Zac Efron. 

Moreover, actors are even rewarded for their dramatizations as exemplified by Peters winning a Golden Globe for his performance as Jeffrey Dahmer.

In addition, these retellings often place a heavy emphasis on equating felonies, the sentencing that most of these true crimes result in, with always being committed by violent criminals. This ignores the wide range of crimes committed in the U.S. that constitute a felony, including those that are non-violent. For example, the unlawful possession of controlled substances under certain circumstances is also considered a felony. However, when thinking of a felony, most people immediately associate it with violent crimes such as murder or rape.

This issue is so deeply entrenched in our media and culture that it’s difficult to even begin to understand how we can detangle it from society. 

While encouraging stricter community guidelines in social media could be a potential solution, regulation of content rarely produces the intended effect and rather just encourages users to find ways to bypass these restrictions.

Instead, we encourage a recentering of the conversation to center the victims of families, victims of color and issues within the criminal justice system. 

By changing these narratives to focus on bringing justice to the victims without simply creating fear and exacerbating stigmas around those convicted of crimes, we can fundamentally change how we report, view and consume true crime content.