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How podcasts and documentaries are changing the way we consume true crime

Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at U of T Scarborough, talks about how popular podcasts and documentaries are changing the way we consume true crime. (Photo by Ken Jones)

It all began with Serial, the gripping podcast by Sarah Koenig that explored the 1999 conviction of Adnan Syed in the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Not only did the series shine light on an all but forgotten case, it became the first podcast to truly break into the mainstream. What followed was a torrent in the true crime genre, from HBO’s The Jinx to Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Just scan the most popular podcasts on iTunes and Google Play and you’ll be sure to find plenty of true crime series.

So what makes these thorough, long-form means of storytelling so effective that they’re capturing the public’s imagination, and even in some cases, leading to new trials?

Jeffrey Dvorkin, lecturer and director of the journalism program at U of T Scarborough, spoke to writer Don Campbell about the success of these series and the challenges faced by journalists who cover crime.

Why are podcasts so effective and influential in telling true crime stories?

A good podcast does what we crave in a good story, and that is harnesses the power of the human voice. I think the true power of audio storytelling is that it’s familiar to us. We remember as children hearing stories being read to us. I think listening to someone’s voice telling us a story harkens back to ancient times. We can all probably imagine a time when our ancestors would gather around a campfire and tell exciting tales of how many mastodons they killed on a recent hunting trip.

Young people are increasingly familiar with podcasts, especially the ones coming out of public radio in the U.S. Two months ago NPR hit a record 30 million downloads in one month. What’s happening is that the power of radio is being transformed into the power of podcasting. For a younger generation, this is a preferred platform for all of the same reasons that make radio so popular. Podcasts are so prevalent that in one of my writing courses where my students are expected to write a piece of long-form journalism, they ask if they can do a podcast instead. It’s a new digital medium, but one that uses a familiar form of storytelling – I think it’s terrific!

How does the way podcasts cover true crime compare to print and broadcast in the past?

If you consider Serial, it offers rich detail while adding unique digital elements to the story. Serial is also an example of how social activism can be used in a podcast. Adnan Syed, the young man who was convicted and is central to the story, is getting a new trial and much of it can be attributed to the success of the podcast. The difference between today and the past is that we’re now living in a time of greater social consciousness and awareness. We now crave some kind of resolution. I think the old way of doing crime reporting was more judgemental. Journalists today appear more invested, more personally involved in a story. Perhaps there isn’t a perception of emotional detachment like there was in the past, and that could be why these stories told in podcasts, on Netflix and HBO, are so successful because they resonate strongly with audiences. 

Speaking of Netflix, Making a Murderer has been incredibly popular. What do you account for its success?

Its success is connected to the fact that audiences nowadays crave authenticity. I think they’re getting tired of reality show entertainment. The quest for journalistic authenticity by these shows offers escape while also giving us vivid storytelling. We’re all trying to escape reality one way or another when we watch or listen to these stories. But this show in particular shines a light on some very unsavoury practices by police and the prosecution, and that really appealed to our sense of social justice. It looks like both Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, who were the focus of the show, may get new trials. It’s hard to say if any of this would be possible without the popularity of the show. There’s also an ambiguity to it, which is a common element in crime reporting now. I think that’s more appealing than the black-and-white dichotomy of journalism in the past.

The production values in all of these shows are also very high. Does that need to be gripping and entertaining ensure these shows will always be subjective?  

I think we’re in a transitional period, both in journalism and in storytelling. The expectation of the media – and I’m generalizing here a bit – is that we want something with an edge. Audiences are more interested in opinion. We’ve seen through the U.S. election that news organizations now feel compelled to not be neutral so much as truth tellers.

The age of when journalism was expected to have this antiseptic neutrality is over, but at the same time I think journalists are at risk of becoming moralizers. This has some serious downsides to it. On the other hand, people are hungry for some kind of guidance. Audiences haven’t suspended their sense of independence to make up their own minds, but they are looking for some form of clarity in an era of information overload.

Is it harder for beat reporters to cover crime today, and does the long-form nature of podcasts and documentaries lend itself better to crime reporting?

It’s true that in Canada there have been more challenges to freedom of information from courts and government. We really need a strong set of reflexes by news outlets and media lawyers who are interested in making sure that information isn’t being suppressed or overly redacted. The challenge for media outlets is to react vigorously and robustly to intimidation by these institutions. We need good media lawyers inside news organizations to push back on this.

News rooms are smaller, and getting smaller as we speak, and to use Freedom of Information laws to obtain information is often seen as an inefficient use of a reporter’s time. We’re also seeing some other nefarious things like police tapping reporters’ cell phones or compelling reporters to identify sources and whistleblowers. What I tell my students is that you are not police agents; you act on behalf of the public. The relationship between the police and newsrooms is always tenuous, but that’s such a crucial part of maintaining an independent free press.

Given the new media environment, how can the genre be successful in terms of being gripping while also being objective at the same time? 

This isn’t new, it’s an age-old challenge faced by journalists. It’s a dilemma for all media organizations, and that is: what is your service, and to whom are you ultimately responsible? Is it to deliver eyeballs for your advertisers, or it to create a more enlightened, informed public that can operate effectively in a democracy. These are grand terms, but they are the real ones we need to continue reinforcing with the public. The public is craving information that is more nuanced, subtle and intelligently presented than the way traditional journalism allows. But we as consumers need to hold media to a higher standard. We need to develop a better set of filters because it’s a very difficult time we’re in right now when it comes to how we receive and understand information.


© University of Toronto Scarborough