Issue 224,  published September 3, 2019

Crime Junkies Update

There’s been an escalating development with the plagiarism accusations levelled against the Crime Junkie podcast by reporter Cathy Frye, who initially alleged in a comment on the podcast’s Facebook page posted on 15 August that her copyrighted investigative series “Caught in the Web” had been used “almost verbatim” as the basis for an episode about the murder of 13-year-old Kacie Woody in Arkansas in 2002. (There’s a fuller outline of the whole story to date and its possible implications for podcasting more generally in Nick’s Vulture piece and last week’s Hot Pod.)

Now, attorneys for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (ADG) — where Frye used to be a reporter, and the publication that published and copyrighted her original Kacie Woody series — have sent a cease-and-desist order to Crime Junkie co-host and creator Ashley Flowers. The order asserts that the publication “owns all the rights, title, and interest in and to its copyrights, including but not limited to the copyrights to the archival stories and photographs published in its daily print publication or through its digital properties” and that any unauthorised use of such material is a copyright infringement.

Further, the order requests that Crime Junkie “fully and unequivocally credit ADG’s copyright and Cathy Frye’s reporting at the beginning of the podcast.” On 23 August, Crime Junkie reinstated several episodes to its feed that had been removed when the allegations first began to circulate (including the one about the Kacie Woody case) and noted in a Facebook post that all sources were now “comprehensively cited on the blog”, and that all new episodes would have “thorough citations” going forward. No mention was made of whether in-episode audio credits would be added.

Crime Junkie has until 12 September to respond to the ADG’s cease and desist, which says that the publication “may take further action including but not limited to filing a lawsuit” if their conditions (ie that the original reporting be credited at the start of the episode or the episode be removed) aren’t met.

Nick wrote last week that this incident seemed like “the beginning of a tipping point, one in which there will be more debt payments to come”, and this legal escalation seems to support this argument. Podcasters, especially in the true crime space, who rely heavily on sources that go uncredited will be looking nervously at their own feeds, and publications with grievances to pursue will be buoyed by the ADG’s approach. There’s certainly a momentum to these kinds of accusations; where there is one, more will follow as other parties take stock and consider their options.

One aspect of this that I’m interested in keeping tabs on — as the Digital Wild West of second-hand sourced true crime podcasting begins to be tamed a little — is what routes, if any, to reputational rehabilitation are out there. It is, of course, too soon to say what will happen in the case of Crime Junkie, but if, hypothetically, a podcaster chooses to apologise for any previous infractions, comply with any retrospective requests for credit, pay any penalties incurred, and tighten up their process going forward, how will that be received by their audience and the wider community?

True crime as a podcasting ecosystem has attracted some big money deals in the recent past, from Spotify’s acquisition of Parcast to numerous prospective TV adaptations. Those eyeing similar arrangements in the future may be incentivized to keep their slate clean, depending on whether this becomes an issue where people have long memories.