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ASU Project Humanities event delves into true crime as entertainment

Panel: Salaciousness, exploitation are staples of the genre

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February 10, 2023

Lee Griffo’s sister, Jessie McCaskill, was murdered by her wife in 2012. Two years later, without approval from the family, the Investigation Discovery Network did an episode on the murder for its "Deadly Affairs" show titled “Family Ties.”

Griffo watched it and was horrified.

“I was appalled at the direction they took it in,” Griffo said. “It was salacious, lurid and wrong, not true at all. It could not have been further from the actual events that happened. They set it up as if it was some torrid lesbian love triangle, setting up tips all the way to make it into a murder mystery before eventually realizing it was her wife who shot her. It was re-traumatizing.

“If they had been more true to the crime that happened that night it might have shed some light on the real dangers we all face and how to be vigilant, particularly in specific cases of domestic violence.”

Griffo made her remarks during a panel discussion titled “Ethics of Entertainment: An Obsession with 'True Crime?'” on Wednesday, sponsored by Arizona State University’s Project Humanities.

MORE: View upcoming spring 2023 Project Humanities events

The discussion, held at West Hall on the Tempe campus, featured Griffo and four other panelists:

  • Gray Cavender, emeritus professor of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation, whose teaching and interests include the media, crime and punishment.
  • Lauren Mucciolo, executive producer of ASU’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
  • April Ignacio, chair for the Arizona State Democratic Party Native American Caucus and member of the Arizona State Study Committee for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls.
  • Sarah Florini, associate professor of film and media studies in ASU’s Department of English.

Rachel Nicole Renteria Sondgeroth Paralkarprogram coordinator for Project Humanities, moderated the panel.

Panel of women behind table at event

From left to right: Panelists Sarah Florini, Lauren Mucciolo and April Ignacio and moderator Rachel Nicole Renteria Sondgeroth Paralkar speak to attendees of the Project Humanities lecture “Ethics of Entertainment: An Obsession with ‘True Crime’?" at West Hall on ASU's Tempe campus on Feb. 8. Photo by Monica Gaytan

There’s no question, true crime has exploded as an entertainment genre. Fifty percent of the top charting podcasts are true crime podcasts. Eight of Netflix’s top 10 shows from March to June 2021 were true-crime documentaries, such as "Tiger King," "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich," "Night Stalker," "American Murder: The Family Next Door" and "Murder Among the Mormons."

The genre is particularly appealing to women; a 2010 study by the University of Illinois found that 70% of Amazon reviews on true-crime books are by women. Michael Boudet, who created the popular true-crime podcast “Sword and Scale,” said that 70% of his fans are women between the ages of 25 and 45.

“We do have studies why disproportionally women watch this,” Florini said. “Sometimes it may validate fear. They see it as educational, not to do that thing because people get murdered after doing 'X' thing. There’s powerful evidence about domestic violence surivors who listen to true crime as a way to process their trauma.”

Although true crime as entertainment often is referred to as “trauma porn" — “there’s a long history of making spectacle out of people’s pain,” Florini said — the panelists agreed there can be value in the genre if it’s done responsibly and exposes injustice.

Mucciolo said the New York Times podcast “Serial” exonerated a man who had been serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his high school classmate. She also noted the documentaries that emerged after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020.

“They blew up this whole cover-up and what was really this great atrocity done by police officers,” Mucciolo said. “We learned things about police training we didn’t know before. I do think it’s possible to approach this following principles of ethical journalism and tell these stories responsibly and make a real difference.”

Cavender said he recently streamed documentaries from the Sundance Film Festival that were “hard to watch but very powerful."

"You learned about the criminal justice system and the world we live in, how police can be both good and bad. That’s important,” he said.

But too often, the panelists said, the true crime genre is salacious and exploitative. Ignacio asked three pertinent questions.

“What if it’s none of your business?” she said. “Why can’t you let families grieve? When exploiting tragedy for the purpose of entertainment, how does that then change the course of society?”

The reason, of course, is money. As Netflix is proving, true crime draws eyeballs, which draws advertisers.

“The most lurid, sensational and most graphic details are no one’s business,” Griffo said, “but they also do seem to be the most compelling.”

“Follow the money,” Ignacio said. “In my experience, in working with journalists and the media, the number one request was wanting the details of a crime that was committed against an individual. That has always been the driving point of telling this story; finding the most gruesome details of that act of violence. There’s a market for it.”

None of the panelists expect the true crime genre to disappear. After all, it’s been around for decades. From 1929 to 1930, listeners heard true detective mysteries on the radio. In 1947, radio shows like "Call the Police," "Deadline Mystery" and "Did Justice Triumph?" were all popular.

Nor do they expect those chasing ratings and dollars to suddenly become responsible stewards of what they put on the air.

“These pieces are just voyeurism of crime and trauma,” Florini said. “But they sell.”

That reality is why Griffo is not only speaking out about the re-traumatization her family suffered but also writing a book about the experience.

“I’m a First Amendment advocate,” she said. “And I believe the ugly, raw stories of our history being told by the right people need to be shown. But as far as salacious, exploitative, the Investigation Discoverys of the world, there’s not much ethical or moral value to be had there.”

Top photo courtesy Pexels

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