Serial Offenders? The troubles and triumphs of true crime podcasting

By Katrina Clifford and Rob White. Learn more about the new edition of Crime, Criminality and Criminal Justice, authored by Rob White, Santina Perrone and Loene Howes.

Podcasts about true crime have emerged as the new best sellers of crime media. The annual podcast survey by the ABC reveals the surge in popularity, with 44% of people claiming to have listened to a true crime podcast in the month preceding the survey (Sept-Oct 2018), up from 30% the year before.

But the love affair with podcasts has been slow to evolve. While its history dates back to the 1980s, podcasting as we now know it arguably didn’t take hold until the portable digital media boom of the noughties. It wasn’t until another decade later, following the runaway success of Serial in 2014, that true crime became the media darling of the podcast scene it is now.

An investigative journalism series co-produced by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder from This American Life, Serial’s 12-part first season explored the the death of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. The series made international headlines, reaching the top spot on the iTunes charts even before its official debut. Within a matter of weeks, it had broken records as the fastest ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads or streams from the Apple iTunes store, solidifying the popularity of the did-(s)he-or-didn’t-(s)he investigative narrative that has since become a trope of true crime podcasts.

Of course, the fascination with tales of the dark side of human existence is not a new phenomenon; such is our obsession with murder and mayhem that entire industries have sprung up in response (think: dark tourism).

Communications between police, courts and media are also as old as journalism itself. But in the digital age, podcasts have clearly matured into the storytelling platform du jour with true crime a ready recipe for partnership success – not just in terms of audience appeal, but for the business of traditional media producers, too.

Part of the allure lies in the uniqueness of the story on which the podcast is based – the horror of the crime, the weight of injustice, the quest for answers – and the serialisation of the narrative, which invites listeners to tune in to future episodes. With podcasts, this is easily done: you can listen to them on-demand and while multi-tasking, be it on an early morning walk, the commute to work, cleaning the house or working up a sweat at the gym (although, the ABC Podcast Survey shows that we mostly listen at home). Time may not always heal, nor justice bring, but a podcast can rekindle interest in the coldest of cases, holding a mirror to the imperfections of the criminal justice system and prompting reviews of potential miscarriages of justice and even the need for legislative reform.

Following Serial’s first season finale, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals filed a motion to allow Adnan Syed to appeal his murder conviction and petition for a retrial on the grounds that he had received ineffective legal counsel at his original trial. Evidence uncovered as part of the Serial team’s investigation revealed that Syed’s lawyer had failed to contact a potential alibi witness whose testimony, if believed, would have meant it was impossible for Syed to have committed the crime of murdering Hae Min Lee. After a protracted process, Maryland’s highest court determined in March 2019 that Syed did not deserve a new trial. His murder conviction has been reinstated.

Closer to home, a backyard dig for the remains of Lyn Dawson, a Sydney mother-of-two missing for over three decades, similarly came about as a consequence of new evidence uncovered as part of The Teacher’s Pet, the now globally-renowned podcast produced about the case by Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, The Australian. Dawson’s husband, Chris Dawson, was subsequently charged with her alleged murder.

While no prosecution resulted from Phoebe’s Fall – a podcast by Australian newspaper The Age about the brutal and mysterious death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjuk – the Victorian government did introduce a raft of new laws following the podcast’s release, allowing families to challenge questionable coronial findings. Handsjuk’s motionless body was discovered at the bottom of a garbage chute in a luxury Melbourne apartment tower in December 2010. The coroner overseeing the inquest found that she had put herself, feet first, into the chute in an accidental act while under the influence of alcohol and sleeping tablets. The verdict, many maintain, should have been an opening finding, given the weight of evidence in the case that suggested foul play may have been involved.

Media reports in Australia have further attributed the popularity of true crime podcasts to recent spikes in the number of anonymous tips provided to volunteer crime reporting network, Crime Stoppers. The ABC’s Trace podcast even included a bonus episode on how the leads and tip-offs received from listeners were helping to progress the investigation into the unsolved murder of Maria James, a mother of two who was stabbed to death in the back of her suburban Melbourne bookstore in June 1980. In November 2018, the Victorian Coroner reopened the investigation into James’s death. Former detective, Ron Iddles, who originally took on the case as a 25-year-old homicide squad recruit told ABC News the decision was testament to the power of podcasting: “When a podcast [Trace] gets more than three million downloads, that is a new initiative that needs to be seriously looked at as a way of solving unsolved cases”.

But true crime podcasting is not without its detractors. Objections have been voiced towards the way in which podcast series such as Trace and others of its ilk encourage amateurism over professional investigation; cultivate ethically questionable relationships between journalists and their podcast subjects; create a media spectacle around crimes as a result of the podcaster’s pursuit of (what is often an unreachable) absolute ‘truth’; retraumatise victims’ families; and present assumptions of guilt and innocence that, while plausible, are infrequently supported by hard evidence.

The latter criticism has been directed in particular towards The Teacher’s Pet, which at last count had reached over 28 million downloads worldwide, prompting the judges of the Gold Walkley Award – one of Australian journalism’s highest honours – to describe it as “a masterclass in investigative journalism”.

The arrest of Lyn Dawson’s husband on the back of The Teacher’s Pet has also sparked a fresh wave of scrutiny about the ability of defendants to receive a fair trial in the face of the public attention generated by popular true crime podcasts.

As Hannah Marshall, a partner with law firm Marque Lawyers points out, in their rush to seek justice and defend victims’ rights, true crime podcasts (and the volumes of related press they attract) may inadvertently do the opposite.

“The obvious upside to this kind of investigative journalism”, writes Marshall, “is the chance that new, meaningful evidence could be found that will help get a conviction. But that has to be balanced very carefully against the risk involved in broadcasting information that is prejudicial and unlikely to be admissible as evidence in court”. Then, there is the question of what true crime podcasts are teaching audiences about criminal justice – or the pre-existing misconceptions they may be inadvertently reinforcing – and the implications this has for public trust in the criminal justice system.

For Michael Bachelard, one of the journalists who worked on Phoebe’s Fall, the success of the true crime podcast and the public’s unswerving interest in stories of crime and (in)justice have done more than simply shine a spotlight on cold cases and the shortcomings of criminal investigations.

They have offered a lifeline of sorts to mainstream media organisations savvy enough (and with the resources available) to capitalise on the armchair detective or ‘websleuthing’ phenomenon. Since Serial, advertisers have started to take a more serious look at podcasting as a storytelling and branding platform, proving in the process, says Bachelard, that “journalism is alive and well” in spite of popular conceptions it is dying.

Whether the popularity bubble of the true crime podcast will burst or journalism will find a way to develop a sustainable business model from podcasting only time will tell.

We might additionally consider whether those who are tuning into true crime podcasts are specialists in the area of criminal justice or are simply dipping in and out for entertainment purposes. This is important insofar as when people are engaged regularly and over time in selected topical areas (justice, health, politics) they develop expertise in those areas, which enhances their ability to add nuance and detail to complex issues.

As a more immersive form for storytelling, podcasting certainly has the potential to increase the credibility of journalists, precisely because of the way in which it strips away their authority, allowing listeners to hear the uncertainty and vulnerabilities of the reporter, their sympathies and frustrations, their tormented indecision over what to believe, and their desire to come to some sort of resolution and understanding.

These disclosures give the stories of true crime podcasts a particular potency, more so when corrupt processes involving state functionaries – like police, lawyers and judges – can be demonstrated.

But in an article for The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead recently questioned whether the intimacy afforded by podcasting in fact verges on the manipulative. She points to the “unapologetically invasive”, exploitative and disrespectful tactics sometimes used to construct the podcast’s audio narrative and the negative side effects this can have on listeners, who feel satiated by the podcast’s narrative “because it is beguiling, not because it is true”.

Similar concerns have previously been raised by scholars who claim that, by virtue of the medium’s features, podcasts can often confuse listeners into relating to real people as though they are fictional characters, sometimes to troubling and potentially dangerous ends.

In the case of Serial, the prosecution’s star witness, Jay, who declined to be interviewed by Koenig for the podcast ended up being thrust into the public spotlight regardless as a victim of doxing by Serial subReddit forum users. Previously undisclosed identifying information, including his surname, residential address and criminal history, were publicly disseminated online without thought to or care for the consequences. In an interview with The Intercept, Jay said he feared for his family’s safety once people started showing up to take photographs and videos of his house.

Of course, Reddit is no stranger to the harms these kinds of crowdsourced investigations can cause. In 2013, American student Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing for a month, was mistakenly identified by amateur digital sleuths on Reddit (and 4chan, Facebook and Twitter) as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. The discovery of Tripathi’s body in the waters off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island, four days after the FBI officially identified the Tsarnaev brothers as the real suspects served to compound the grief and trauma experienced by the Tripathi family, who had been subjected to hateful messages from online vigilantes and bombarded by journalists who believed (and in some cases had broadcast) the unverified accusations being circulated on social media.

Which leads us to question: has the intimacy intrinsic to the production values of the podcast served to obscure the artful construction of its audio narrative, ensuring that the potential vices of true crime podcasting are overlooked in the frenetic lauding of its ostensible virtues?

One of the fundamental tenets of media criminology is the recognition that media do not represent reality, but a version of reality. This is in spite of the well-worn mantra that podcasts like Serial tell ‘one story – a true story’. We know that media content is subject to processes of selection and editing, and media texts and media practices are informed by wider contextual factors, including particular professional and institutional pressures, constraints and opportunities. Media frames thus play a major part in shaping ‘what counts’ in terms of public perceptions of law and punishment, justice, personal and national security, and the emotions that run hot in response to such issues. How we think and how we feel about victims and their rights, as well as offenders and their punishment, is socially determined. The same is true in the world of true crime podcasts.

Hidden in the subtext to the phenomenon is, therefore, a cautionary tale about the importance of developing media literacy among podcast devotees and a broader appreciation that, for all the opportunities true crime podcasts can create for compassion and justice, so too can they provoke undesirable consequences, even if unintentionally so. In other words, while true crime podcasting has undoubtedly proved a success for both mainstream media organisations and their audiences, this popularity may not always come without a cost – to the individuals involved or the administration of justice itself. This is especially so in regards to the differences, technically and legally, between ‘information’, ‘evidence’, ‘hearsay’ and ‘speculation’, and how these may be conflated in media representations and audience responses.

This is not to say that reflective and ethically-minded podcast content creators do not exist nor that the intentions of journalists who set out to right wrongs through their podcast investigations are not beneficent and true.

But from a media criminology perspective, it is important to not let the entertainment value of true crime podcasts overshadow or subvert ongoing critical conversations about the ethics of podcasting, the gaps between representation and reality, and the framing effects that such series can produce.

As with any representation of law and order, the mediated view of reality presented by true crime podcasts warrants scrutiny for the normative expectations it establishes and promotes about crime, criminality and the criminal justice system; definitions of justice; and the roles, responsibilities and limits of journalistic storytelling in relation to wrongful convictions and cold case investigations.

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