True crime and treading softly
It has been a month since the death of Christine Dacera, and in that month there has been enough sensationalized content to fill up a Netflix series. I write this soberly, as a consumer of true crime with an awareness of the complex ethics of discussing such coverage as events are still unfolding and while involved families are reeling. There is something distasteful about how the case is being discussed in offices, in workplaces, in operating rooms, on Twitter threads—filled with victim blaming and homophobia and tittering speculations about orgies and sexual orientations. But then the public enjoys playing amateur detective now more than ever, and the continuing emergence of true crime content plays into that and magnifies it.
True crime—addictive, emotionally charged content—has always been a genre with a large readership, but it was given new life by social media and by the birth of the true crime podcast, now one of the platform’s most popular genres. I recently discovered a few true crime podcasts from the Philippines, too, proof that the genre has gained quite a foothold in local entertainment. Netflix and other subscription services also continue to feed into this cultural phenomenon.
The interest in crime-solving has clear upsides, like encouraging truth-seeking and empathy for victims and their families. We are able to show our support for Ms Dacera’s grieving family and to echo calls for justice. A renewed interest in old and mishandled cases, such as the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee at the heart of Season 1 of the breakthrough 2014 podcast “Serial,” also has the potential for reviewed cases and overturned convictions. A public that is invested in government response to crime also provides an opportunity for meaningful participation in social justice: Only recently, the crime podcast “Criminal” profiled the case of the 2016 death of social media star, Qandeel Baloch, which raised interest in legislation for honor killings in Pakistan.
However, the ethics of true crime are fraught with pitfalls. It will never be justifiable to use any family’s trauma as entertainment. On the Dacera case, I’ve had colleagues come up to me to ask for my opinion (both as physician and true crime consumer)—a matter on which I’ve been reticent—only for things to descend into discussions on orgies and speculation on individuals’ sexualities. Moreover, true crime content must make for compelling storytelling. Where it doesn’t exist, we transform the narrative ourselves—polarizing opinions, finding heroes, pointing at villains. We may view those involved as antagonists and protagonists rather than as real people. We take a voyeuristic interest in salacious details. A thirst for gratuitous defamation—what we call “cancel culture”—takes hold. One should also note that social activism around true crime cases rarely, if ever, leads to changes in conviction.
For a case merely a month old, we must also ask: How do we demand transparency without compromising the sensitivity of private, intimate information, and protecting anonymous sources? Furthermore, in our setting, how does the furor we build around a case change the outcome, especially when we have a police force—and ultimately, a hierarchy that goes up to the very top—that remains unbothered by public scrutiny and outrage? Is our participation as social media detectives merely an illusion of greater involvement, a dream of correcting failures of justice? How difficult to dismiss the oft-repeated thought that, in the Duterte administration, we are all just screaming into the void, while government does what it wants. One also cannot help but wonder if the media frenzy is yet one more device to detract from other issues of accountability and governance. All of these threads complicate an already complicated case.
We cannot deny that there is public interest at stake in the Christine Dacera case—that behind the outcry there is the need for truth-seeking toward correct convictions, justice for her family, and a functioning and accountable judicial system. But we armchair detectives and social media activists must take care, lest our interests descend into the voyeuristic rather than the journalistic. Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, when asked in 2014 to comment on the ethics of “Serial” and true crime journalism, noted that the reporter’s ethical obligation should be: “To treat people with dignity and respect, to not take liberties, to not pillage their personal lives for no reason, to not take cheap shots, to give them their fair due.” With regard to this case, we—in our offices and in our group chats and on our Facebook timelines—should try to do the same.
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