Respect the Yellow Tape
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True crime shows have become increasingly popular recently, especially with the relatively new podcast Serial and Netflix series Making a Murderer. The former, first popularized in early 2015, is a spin-off of a radio show beginning in 1995 known as This American Life. It follows Adnan Syed, convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, and discusses whether or not he is guilty. The latter, which premiered in late 2015, documents the experience of another convicted murderer, Steven Avery, in the biased US Criminal Justice System.
Both of these shows explore the inherent biases of and attempt to expose important flaws in the CJS by assuming the identity of critical journalism. The USCJS is a subjective institution, and too often we automatically assume that what the court rules is the truth, and that because of the legal system’s “neutrality,” there is no need to dig any deeper.
While it is good to question the objectivity and neutrality of the American criminal justice system, Serial and Making a Murderer are going about it the wrong way. The shows fetishize real-life murder cases and fail to accurately provide a complete picture of what really happened, which, although under the guise of bringing justice and truth to the people, is potentially harmful.
First, Making a Murderer and Serial are taking the deaths of actual, real-life women and turning them into mediums of entertainment. Yes, it is important to challenge the legal system’s methods and seek truth and justice, but these shows basically turn horrible, heinous tragedies into a fun and enjoyable pastime. It’s sickening that in the quest for justice of those convicted, these shows neglect to seek justice for the victims and families by dismissing the fact that a death is not merely a form of entertainment.
The murder cases explored in Serial and Making a Murderer, whether committed by the show stars or not, aren’t something to be trivialized, and these shows do exactly that by turning the focus away from people who suffered a horrible tragedy to bored young adults who think it’s their place to be a detective. The shows put higher priority on discussing whether or not Syed and Avery are guilty than finding the real perpetrator.
The distinction between these two goals is that answering the first question wouldn’t actually solve the underlying issue, while discovering who the actual killers are would bring justice to Syed, Avery, and the victims.
Second, Serial and Making a Murderer, although claiming to be focused on finding the unbiased truth, fail to be objective and show all sides of the stories. Specifically, there are lots of reasons why Making a Murderer, while still upholding that it is exposing the subjectivity of the justice system, is subjective itself.
For example, the show does a phenomenal job displaying how the actions of the police and legal systems were terrible, but barely touches the fact the Avery is mostly a terrible guy as well. Footage from the show literally shows him pleading guilty to pouring gasoline on a cat and throwing it into a bonfire, yet the show still heavily implies throughout the season that Avery is probably innocent.
While Serial does a better job than Making a Murderer does in this case, the podcast isn’t completely faultless. Sarah Koenig, creator and co-producer of Serial, makes herself a character on the show and spends a lot of time pursuing her own personal interests and marvels in relation to the case. She disguises this as objectivity, but the entire show is centered around what she personally cares to find out about the case. This is not investigative journalism, as the show would like watchers and listeners to believe.
It is clear here that true crime shows are not effective or helpful social justice mechanisms because they are not being held to the standards of journalistic integrity as they should be. They distort the facts of Avery’s and Syed’s cases and use the tragic murders of Teresa Halbach and Hae Mine Lee in order to create lurid entertainment, which is the opposite of what the public thinks they’re doing.
Challenging our legal system is important, but these shows do the exact same thing as what they say the legal system is doing wrong.
Note: Thanks to Mr. Brandon Garrett and Mr. Todd Newkirk for sharing their insight on Serial and Making a Murderer with me.