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True crime has never been more popular. But is it ethical?


True crime is all over TV, podcasts and social media. Right now, the buzz is about the Netflix series on Jeffrey Dahmer and "Serial," the podcast that was instrumental in overturning a murder conviction. But is it right to mine real human tragedy for content? Bethonie Butler covers television and pop culture for The Washington Post, and she joins us now to talk about the ethics of true crime. Welcome to the program, Bethonie.

BETHONIE BUTLER: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So first, I want to talk about why true crime is so popular. I want to get your take on that. As someone who's, like, into horror, I think, sometimes, people like things that scare them from a place of control.

BUTLER: Yeah, I think that's true. You know, I'm a notorious pauser, so when I'm watching something scary, I tend to pause it. You do have control over what you're watching.

RASCOE: And this isn't really new, as, you know, Truman Capote could tell us. But you recently wrote an analysis about the new "Dahmer" series on Netflix. Do you think it offers enough nuance and enough new insight to revisit this, you know, horrible story that has been told so many times?

BUTLER: In this case, you know, ostensibly, the series is meant to highlight Jeffrey Dahmer's victims and also highlight the fact that they were primarily Black and gay. I think the question is whether there might be another way to highlight the victims. The series - it is very graphic. So I think it's hard to say that it's only about the victims.

RASCOE: You have true crime that's documentary. But then you also have, like, series, and they have these A-list casts. Like, do you feel like there is a difference between doing a documentary and doing, like, a movie or a TV series?

BUTLER: I think in both cases, they can be exploitative or considered exploitative. I'm thinking of Netflix's "Making A Murderer," which was a docuseries about an actual murder. And the victim in that case, Teresa Halbach - you know, she's not the center of the docuseries. And then when you think about fictional retellings of crimes, one good example is "The People v. O.J.," which was another Ryan Murphy production. It was "American Crime Story." And in that case, you know, the series was successful in sort of tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of that time in highlighting some of the racial issues that were going on at that time and affected the coverage of the murder. So I think in that way - you know, that series had a huge A-list ensemble cast. It won awards. But I certainly don't think that - the victims, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, were still not at the center of the series.

RASCOE: Is it possible to make true crime - you know, whether it's documentaries, shows, podcasts - without revictimizing the real people that are talked about in these series?

BUTLER: Yeah, I think it's really difficult. But there is one good example that I can think of. So there was another Netflix docuseries called "The Keepers." And "The Keepers" looks at the case of this Baltimore nun who was murdered decades ago. And because the series actually involves former students of Sister Cathy - that was the nun's name, Cathy Cesnik - it involves her students, and it really tells their stories, as well. You know, there are grisly details. It is about a murder. But all throughout the episodes, you really feel like Sister Cathy is at the center of it.

RASCOE: Bethonie Butler covers television and pop culture for The Washington Post. Thank you for being with us.

BUTLER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.
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