TikTok, true crime and a chronic lack of empathy
Ana Anajuba, Editor-in-Chief, discusses the ethics of true crime coverage on TikTok and by major news corporations.
With the advent of social media and the internet, the 2000s was accompanied by a new dawn of information. Instead of having to go to the library and sit with a reference book, mobile phones and search engines meant that the entirety of human knowledge seemed to fit squarely in the palm of a hand. However, as anyone who grew up with this new technology can attest, we had to become wary of misinformation. The idea that people could pretend to be someone else was drilled into children’s heads and teachers almost universally rejected Wikipedia as a source of information, no matter how accurate it was; the adage ‘don’t trust everything you see on the internet’ became ubiquitous, sang in chorus by adults to children everywhere.
Yet, this belief seems to have been pushed to the wayside. Facebook, perhaps most notoriously, has become a breeding ground for political disinformation and misinformation. Issues like taking vaccines, that seemed to have been accepted were suddenly contentious and, much like a virus, so-called ‘fake news’ spread in the warm petri dish of social media.
Whilst the demographics of Facebook skews more to an older generation, the emergence of TikTok, has created a new battle ground. The short form video format has made content easily digestible, especially for the reduced attention span that has been cultivated by the contant permanence and propagation of media.
Although the sensationalism of crime became more prominent in the Victorian era as the public developed a fascination with the criminal as the public developed an interest in the shadowy London underworld depicted in Dicken’s novels, perhaps the greatest emergence of ‘true crime’ media dates back to the mid-twentieth century with radios, televisions and newspapers bringing easy access to crime stories. Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ marked a pivotal shift mixing journalism and storytelling to cover a horrifying murder that gripped the minds of many people. However, the boundary seems to have firmly been crossed from reportage to criminal investigation.
The tragic disappearance of Nicola Bulley is only the most recent case where armchair detectives have crossed from perhaps excusable morbid curiosity to horrendously invasive speculation. Soon after the police appeal for appeal, reports were made of members of the public pretending to be journalists to circumvent police restrictions. As the investigation continued and personal details about her life were published, it seemed as if people started to consider the crime as a whodunnit television serial to be consumed; instead of seeing her as a person with loved ones and a family, she became a character who’s disappearance could be solved by a breadcrumb of clues left by omniscient showrunners.
The ensuing frenzy led to a TikTok user duping the police in order to film the uncovered body of Nicola Bulley, sparking outrage and condemnation. Meanwhile, across the pond, a ‘TikTok psychic’ who purported to have solved a quadruple homicide is now being sued by the Idaho professor she accused with no evidence.
The tragic disappearance of Nicola Bulley is only the most recent case where armchair detectives have crossed from perhaps excusable morbid curiosity to horrendously invasive speculation.
The dramatisation of true crime like the recent Netflix depiction of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and the many YouTube channels that have sprung up in recent years have desensitised people to the pain caused to families by the endless interest in violent murders. Family members of Dahmer’s victims spoke out against the commercialisation and reproduction of their grief.
Nevertheless, there is a constant appetite for the intrigue surrounding a case. Whilst it seems to be reaching unforeseen heights, the traditional news media cannot remain blameless. For all hand-wringing about journalistic ethics, Sky News is not exempt from criticism as they also called the Bulley family in the midst of their grief an worry. It is easy to blame the public — and many articles have been written doing just that — but section of the media is blameless. Personally, I have always had an interest in true crime and with my psychologist sister, I would often watch the many television series revolving around cases. Perhaps this is an attempt at understanding the human psyche: what can drive someone to slaughter their family, how can I see the warning signs of dangerous people? Also, many families use their suffering to advocate for laws and social changes that ensure others do not have to suffer as they did.
It is understandable for people to be interested in the horrifying things that can happen and seek to protect themselves, however it seems to be increasingly apparent that the ‘true crime’ genre has become just another form of easily digestible entertainment. From catchy headlines crafted to hook the reader with puns to short form internet videos where people judge and speculate from afar we need to be more mindful of what we consume and propagate. The spread of misinformation which can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and trivialise real issues — with podcasts like ‘My Favorite Murder’ using a tagline ‘stay sexy and don’t get murdered’ does no good for anyone. It is possible to raise awareness to help solve cases and without further poking at the grief experienced by those who loved the very real people who have been tragically lost — the only thing missing is empathy.