true crime

'I write about crime for a living. Here's the problem with our true crime obsession.'

I love a good true crime podcast. Serial, The Trojan Horse Affair, Teacher's Pet... they've all kept me company on a morning walk.

True crime is perfect escapism. A choose-your-own-adventure, except it's real life. It hooks me (hooks all of us) with the promise of inside access, new evidence and old secrets, and the exposure of corrupt cops or negligent defence lawyers. I can even kid myself into calling it research. I write crime fiction, after all. I might learn something.

When I first started listening, I felt pretty good about this particular indulgence. When I pressed play on a podcast or clicked on a post, I was supporting the good guys. Intrepid investigative-reporter types who want to change the world for the better. 

After all, we've all known podcasts that have actually made a difference in real life. Adnan Syed was released from prison (albeit briefly, at least at the time of writing) and Chris Dawson was convicted of murdering his wife. 

Watch: The 5 most haunting true crime documentaries. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

It's not that I wasn't always aware, on some level, of the seedier side of true crime, but my eyes were really opened when, in 2022, I started writing a novel about the disappearance and possible murder of a young woman. The novel isn't really about her disappearance, but about what happens after she's gone, when the story of her disappearance goes viral. In the book, the young woman (Nina) goes on vacation with her much-loved boyfriend (Simon) and only Simon comes home. I wanted to write a story about what the families do next. The increasingly extreme steps her parents take to get to the truth, the increasingly extreme steps his parents take to protect him, and the inevitable, explosive, conclusion.


I also wanted to write about what happens to a family and a community when a true crime 'story' goes viral. I wanted to take a magnifying glass to the whole industry, and what I found was stomach churning. Podcast hosts who care about ratings, but not facts. True crime influencers who peddle outrageous accusations against innocent people based on bizarre or spurious evidence (because their income depends on engagement, and nothing drives engagement like outrage). Comment sections full of conspiracy theorists and trolls. 

Take the Idaho Murders, where four young college students were murdered in their bedrooms. 

Speculation and harassment were out of control in the aftermath of the crime. TikTok videos viewed millions of times accused an entirely innocent college professor of ordering the murders (it turned out that the 'evidence' behind the accusation was a tarot card reading). One student was heavily targeted by online trolls because he gave an interview to a TV reporter, and some viewers didn't like the look on his face. Internet sleuths pointed the finger at surviving roommates, who were, presumably, already traumatised, and at a passing food truck driver. 


The actual murderer was never suspected by online communities and was identified by the police through their investigation.

In 2021, four-year-old Cleo Smith was abducted from her family's tent on a camping trip in Western Australia. Facebook groups (at least one of which had tens of thousands of members) were set up to discuss the abduction, and Cleo's parents were harassed by internet trolls claiming they had killed their daughter. 

Police made a public statement making it clear that Cleo's parents were not suspects and Mark McGowan, the West Australia Premier at the time, called on the trolls to stop. 

"They say the most called horrible and shocking things that they'd never say otherwise," he said. 

Cleo was found alive by police eighteen days after her abduction. She had been abducted by a complete stranger who was mentally ill and high on meth at the time.

It's easy, in a way, to dismiss these unfounded accusations. To shrug them off as a small part of a larger story. Maybe even see the pain caused as collateral damage, justifiable in the search for the truth. Except that unfounded accusations and extreme and negligent commentary don't happen just occasionally, or accidentally. They're almost inevitable, for two reasons.


Firstly, because when entertainment is your primary purpose, truth takes a back seat.

The best true crime podcasts are masterclasses in storytelling, and they use the exact same techniques to build engagement that I use, that all novelists use, to capture and hold the attention of their audience. 

Despite what thousands of writing craft books will have you believe, there's no "one great trick to write a bestseller," but it is true that all good fiction requires the same basic elements and those basic elements haven't changed since we huddled around a campfire. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote Poetics, a work on dramatic theory. He advised would-be writers to excite pity and fear in their audiences, and to deliver catharsis. For years I had those three words scrawled on a sheet of paper and tacked to the wall above my writing desk – Pity, Fear, Catharsis. A simple but effective blue-print for telling a story. 

If you boil it all down to basic principles, then, my first job as a writer is to make you feel empathy for my main character, my second is to make you fear for her (raise those stakes!) and my third is to deliver a truly satisfying ending.

It's fascinating, really, how hard true crime works the same angles. Every podcast has a central character (either the murder victim, or a potentially innocent accused) described in sympathetic terms. Every podcast has twists and turns and colourful characters and unexpected moments. The stakes couldn't be higher — that the murderer will never be caught, that others will die, that an innocent person will spend their life behind bars. 


Podcasts draw us in because they use every available trick of effective storytelling. Producers play with pace and delay. They tease their audience with partial information, asking questions they promise to answer... if you just keep listening. They also have a few tricks that novelists do not. Emotive music. Edited sound-bites. 

So what? I hear you ask. Storytelling has always been the most effective form of human communication, so what does it matter if true crime podcasts lean into storytelling techniques? 

Well, because if the number one priority of a podcast is to entertain, then truth will always come a distance second. Storytelling is not about truth. It's about thrills. It's about eliciting a gasp, or tears, or sudden, shocked laughter. It is, ultimately, an exercise in manipulation.

As a fiction writer, I want to write a truly entertaining book, so I cheat. It's not that I don't care about accuracy. I take care with my research. I want to know, before I write a scene, that what I am writing could happen in real life. Authenticity is important, because nothing throws a reader out of a story faster than a scenario that strains credulity... but there is a difference between writing an authentic scene, and boring a reader to tears with unnecessary detail. I compress, tweak, or leave details out entirely, in service to the story. I work a sleight of hand. I write something that is less accurate, but that feels more authentic.


And that's fine, in a novel. It is absolutely not fine when it comes to true crime. It's not okay to leave the boring bits out, those pesky little details that ruin a good tagline. (Like, for example, when the producers of the Robert Durst podcast The Jinx heavily edited and changed the order of a recording to make it sound like Durst made a clear confession, when the truth was murkier and messier). It's also not okay to choose a villain and a hero and then pick and choose which facts to present to your audience, in service to your story or your theme. It's not okay to suggest that a real person committed a terrible crime, and then two episodes later, shrug your shoulders and say my bad, maybe it was this guy. It's not okay to present something as evidence when it's just rumour, or hearsay or opinion. Eventually, the podcast and the audience will move on, and then real people are left to deal with a dark cloud of suspicion, with harassment, with permanently sullied reputations, particularly when the killer is never found or convicted.

In criminal courts we have placed limits around how stories can be told. We have rules, about the quality of evidence that must be produced, about avoiding emotive pictures or video. It's absolutely true that our criminal justice systems are deeply flawed, but we can't turn to True crime podcasts or other entertainment as a better source of truth.


The second reason that wild accusations and ugly commentary are so common is, of course, money.

The driver behind the explosion in true crime podcasts and all of this frenzied online activity, is money. Our economy is an attention economy. True crime grabs our attention and money flows into the bank accounts of podcast producers, and webcasters and all the way down to the micro-influencers. We all know that outrage drives engagement. We don't always think about what that means. The reality is that there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people sitting behind computer screens who are directly incentivized to just... make stuff up. To suggest or insinuate or to outright accuse innocent people. Anything, as long as it's interesting. 

The money generated doesn't go to the victim's families, or to the falsely accused, unless they sue of course, which they do, sometimes successfully.

In 2020, the producers of S-Town (Serial Productions) settled a suit brought by the estate of the deceased John B McLemore, the subject of the S-Town. Serial Productions applied and failed to have the case dismissed before settling. The basis of the claim was that the podcast had "used McLemore's identity for a commercial purpose", violating an Alabama right of publicity law. Given that S-Town was ad-supported, and downloaded 80 million times, I can see why the judge felt there was a case to answer.


There is other examples. Rae Andreacchio, the mother of Christian Andreacchio, a young man who died in what some considered suspicious circumstances, was targeted in a webcast by Karen Yax, who made statements suggestive of Rae’s involvement in Christian's death. Rae Andreacchio later sued Yax, and was granted a default judgement. It remains to be seen whether Rae Andreacchio recovers any money under the order. 

For every person who sues successfully, there are many more who are left with nothing but pain and damaged reputations to contend with. Lisa Flatt, for example, whose sister, Debbie, was murdered when Lisa was only eight years old. Lisa connected with two podcasters who promised to help bring attention to Debbie's case through a Facebook group and podcast. When Lisa later withdrew her cooperation (because the podcasters shared her sister's file with a third party without her permission), the podcasters removed her from the Facebook group they had (with her help) created about her sister's murder, and publicly accused her, on their podcast, of disrupting their investigation and "sabotaging" her sister's case. According to a New York Times report, members of the Facebook group then suggested that Lisa might be covering up for the killer.

At its best, true crime shines a light on dark places, exposes flaws in criminal justice systems, and brings public pressure to bear on police and prosecutors. At its worst it spreads lies and half-truths with enthusiastic abandon, exploits victims and their families, and inspires vigilantism.


I don't want true crime podcasts or TV shows to disappear. I don't want to stop the conversation. I just want us to remember that not all true crime is created equally. 

At one end of the spectrum there are journalists who approach their work with careful fact-checking and balanced reporting, and at the other end there are people who will say and do anything, hurt anyone, for clicks. As an audience, I think we need to be discerning about what we watch and listen to, and about what we say online. True crime is storytelling with real people at its heart. We need to be careful, and honest and fair in how we talk about them. 

Dervla McTiernan is the internationally bestselling, critically acclaimed author of four novels, including The Murder Rule (4 weeks Nielsen No. 1 Fiction, Australia and a NYT Thriller of the Year), as well as her audio novellas, including The Sisters (4 weeks No 1 Audible USA) and The Fireground (No. 1 Audible Fiction Australia). Dervla has won multiple prizes, including a Ned Kelly Award, Davitt Awards, a Barry Award, and an International Thriller Writers Award, and has been shortlisted for numerous others. The Daily Mail referred to her writing as 'glorious storytelling to rival John Grisham.' Dervla lives in Western Australia with her family. 

Feature Image: Supplied/Booktopia/Netflix/Apple Podcasts.

Dervla McTiernan’s latest novel, What Happened to Nina? is out now.