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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: We shouldn’t turn tragedies into entertainment

Cult classics like “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Law and Order SVU have capitated audiences for over 15 years — however, the true crime genre has largely grown in popularity since late 2014 with NPR’s “Serial,” a podcast about the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

The popularity of “Serial” led to the production of documentaries like “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which details suspicion around millionaire Robert Durst and his alleged involvement in three murders. The most recent production in the genre is Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” which centers around the life of Steven Avery after being exonerated for serving almost 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, only to be charged for murder again shortly after.

While these stories often reveal very real issues in our criminal justice system, they all have one thing in common: every incarnation of the true crime genre relies on the misery of another person to entertain viewers.

Profiting off of the hardships of another person stems from the viewer’s ability to turn these people’s lives into a “story.” When “Serial” originally aired, it was easier to separate oneself from the storyline. The murder and subsequent events occurred in 1999-2000 and were therefore not closely related to the listeners. Even a listener from Baltimore familiar with the locations being described could separate themselves simply through the passage of time.

However, this separation — much like in other true crime media — turned the narrative of Syed and Lee into a plotline. As host Sarah Koenig detailed the murder, how it was handled by law enforcement and the course of Syed’s trial, listeners became more and more intrigued. The captivated audience became overly involved without respecting the fact that people’s lives were still at stake and there was still a family of the victim mourning.

This tactic of profiting off of people’s misfortunes was very evident this month when “Serial,” now in its sophomore season, delved back into the season one’s story of Syed to cover his appeal hearing in Baltimore. The appeal hearing, very much pushed into existence because of “Serial,” included testimony speaking to how the podcast provided further evidence in this case.

As the Baltimore Sun detailed, for the family of the victim the appeal hearing “reopened wounds few can imagine.” Lee’s family still believes that Syed killed their then 18-year-old daughter in 1999 and has had to deal with the heartache of the murder and the campaign for Syed’s innocence since “Serial” premiered.

The apparent lack of concern for these people’s lives was demonstrated in the first episode of “Serial’s” three-day coverage of the appeal hearing. The discussion of the hearing opens with the show’s producer Dana Chivvis inquiring “Who were the players in there today?” Chivvis obviously sees the appeal hearing as just another chapter in the story — without realizing just how real that story is.

By day, Koenig watches a court discussing who murdered Lee and, therefore, who should serve a life sentence in prison. By night, Koenig proceeds to recap with her producer Chivvis as if the hearing were a baseball game. “Serial,” unfortunately, is not the only piece of true crime media that does this.

Every piece of true crime media has an accused, a victim and their families behind it. Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” made popular because of the existence of “Serial,” is another instance of a lack of concern for the lives at stake. Viewers of the series, however, have a more clear view of how these crimes affect families as the documentary places the family of the accused, Steven Avery, front and center. Between interviews and taped statements with the Avery family and the family of the murdered, Teresa Haibach, the gravity of the trial and media presence becomes abundantly clear.

In discussing this documentary, Jillian Capewell of the Huffington Post described a dilemma for many viewers: “It’s a difficult place to stand as a viewer — craving more information, more drama and remembering that when the cameras are turned off, what’s left are two actual, broken families and a flawed justice system, and questions we don’t have any easy answers to.”

The true crime genre, regardless of how many feel about it, is on the rise and shows no sign of slowing. Each of these shows gives viewers a chance to be their own detective and feel more competent than those who were originally on the job. Viewers feel that they have stock in these cases and proceed to engage on many forms of social media — posting on forums, discussing in Facebook groups and signing petitions.

This total submersion into a product is exactly what producers of any media form want. When viewers get excited enough about something, they will voraciously consume more and more of it, creating a feeding frenzy.

No matter how invasive, rude or horrific viewers get, the show will go on with new “Serial” podcasts being released on Thursdays at 4 a.m. MST.

Follow Sabrina Etcheverry on Twitter

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