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How True Crime Podcasts Perpetuate The Myth of an Effective Criminal Justice System

In 2014, Serial subverted the true crime genre. Rather than assume the role of the sympathetic police detective by investigating the tragic death of Hae Min Lee, Sarah Koenig took advantage of the singular rapport between a podcast’s host and their listeners to do something more radical: examine a second tragedy in the form of Adnan Syed’s possible wrongful conviction, exposing deep flaws in the criminal justice system along the way. The show asked millions of listeners to think differently about how crime and justice work in America.

It also inspired quite a few of those listeners to make true crime podcasts of their own, as you probably know by now. In the six years since Serial, the genre has positively bloated. Some of the entries, like APM’s In the Dark, similarly engage with a subversion of TV crime procedurals, digging deep into the injustices of the criminal justice system rather than extending the myth of its competence. But there have been a great many more that have largely settled into the facile perspective: a whodunit, as experienced by a detective. These podcasts can take different forms — the irreverent banter of My Favorite Murder, the grandiloquent revelations of Up and Vanished, the ripped-from-the-headlines pulp of Dirty John — but the listener is generally made to follow the same narrative arc: we enter into the story at the scene of the crime, as the police detective does; we consider the case closed at an arrest, as they do. The formulaic structure enables a steady churn, but much like the criminal justice system, it values efficient resolution over nuanced truth.

Many of the genre’s most popular shows follow a conversational format: one host explains the case, and the other reacts as an emotional foil for the listener. More summary than original investigative work, these shows often use official accounts from law enforcement as the factual backbone of a story. (These police accounts also typically make up the backbone of the narratives propagated in media coverage.) Relying on police records as the established historical narrative gives these podcasts a rote, familiar structure: the sympathetic victim, the grisly crime, the dogged detective, the suspicious lead, the arrest. That makes them easy to digest, and easy to binge for “true crime addict” listeners who get their fix in an episode of Crime Junkie, Court Junkie, or True Crime Obsessed. But it also oversimplifies complex, tragic cases: the good guys find justice for the victim, and the bad guy gets what he deserves.

True crime shows from larger podcast studios — like Wondery, which produces several shows with Dateline NBC, and Tenderfoot TV — tend to raise both the production quality and the investigative approach, elevating the host and listener to the role of a crusading detective obsessed with an unsolved mystery. There’s a participatory thrill in what’s being offered: the original detectives may not have been able to solve the case, but the right sleuth — the podcast’s intrepid host, often aided by listeners posting on a message board — can crack it.

While these narratives can include moments of inept police work, they usually explicitly aim to solve the whodunit through detective work. “I think every listener wants there to be a completely buttoned-up, ‘here’s exactly what happened to this person,’” says Payne Lindsey, co-founder of Tenderfoot TV and host of several of the network’s shows. In season one of Up and Vanished, Lindsey investigated a cold case on his own. In season two, he collaborated with an “awesome agent” at the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. “We were working together,” says Lindsey. “He has resources I don’t have, and I have a deluge of information coming my way.” This approach glorifies the detective’s role, whether or not they’re involved in the podcast. If solving the whodunit is the ultimate goal, then the detective is the hero.

Every piece of media has a perspective. Which is to say, there’s no such thing as objective storytelling about a crime. Some podcast hosts have acknowledged that and used it to encourage listeners to sympathize with perspectives beyond that of the detective and the victim. Through her feelings of doubt and confusion about Adnan Syed, Sarah Koenig communicated the unjust experience of someone convicted for a crime. In the second season of In the Dark, Madeleine Baran embedded in Mississippi for almost a year to share the experiences of witnesses and community members who lived through the aftermath of the murders. In Undisclosed, lawyer and advocate Rabia Chaudry carefully explains the legal framework of a criminal case and the slow process of the appeals system.

The advantages of the podcast medium create an opportunity for both narrative and complexity. Chaudry’s experience with Undisclosed can serve as an example of this. As Serial played out its now-legendary first season, Chaudry published a contemporaneous blog examining the legalities of Syed’s case, but the format turned out to be relatively ineffective. It wasn’t until she started a podcast of her own that she was able to reach a broad audience. “We found that there was an audience for this in-depth podcasting,” she says. “You need the time and space to explain the complexity of the system: Why can a district attorney do this but not that? How come this person wasn’t granted bail?”

As a former lawyer, Chaudry also recognizes the value of a well-told story. An adept litigator crafts stories that sway jurors; sensationalistic newspaper headlines shift popular opinion; vicarious TV shows like Cops instruct viewers about who the heroes are (and sometimes inspire audiences to become police themselves). In the end, says Chaudry, “the person who tells the best story wins.”

The structural bias of true crime podcasts matter, because they shape how listeners perceive the criminal justice system. Audiences increasingly trust news coverage less, but don’t bring that skepticism to entertainment media. “In some ways, it’s easier to be influenced by popular culture, because you don’t have your guard up,” says Kathleen Donovan, who studies how pop culture shapes an audience’s understanding of crime. “People think, they’re not trying to make me think a certain way or persuade me, it’s just for fun.” In a study she co-authored, Donovan found that people who watched crime dramas were more likely to believe that police were more successful at clearing crimes, that police mostly used force only when necessary, and that police misconduct doesn’t often lead to false confessions. The study focused on TV dramas, but listeners absorb similar messages from true crime podcasts. When we hear two friends chatting about how a suspect got what he deserved, or we help a host investigate new leads on a cold case, we strengthen narratives about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

Listening to these stories also reinforces beliefs about who we should empathize with and who we should fear. As Rachel Monroe explores in Savage Appetites, true crime fandom skews female across mediums. When these stories focus on a female (often young, often white) victim, it reinforces the erroneous belief that they’re most at risk. “The demographics of people who tend to be fearful of crime are the exact opposite of who should be afraid,” says Donovan. “It tends to be older people and females, who are not the people who are subject to violent crime.”

For listeners who see themselves in the victims, this skewed representation of crime is comforting. “White women’s consumption of true crime — of media about other white women — allows us to tell ourselves a story where we remain society’s victims,” says Sarah Marshall, who dismantles popular narratives of true crime on You’re Wrong About. “We detract from more intersectional modes of trauma, and from stories about people other than imperiled white women.” If white women are victims, detectives are decent, and people in prison are one-dimensional bad guys, then for a white female listener, the criminal justice system is reassuringly effective.

When hosts rely on police narratives and put themselves in the role of a detective, that expresses confidence in law enforcement as the solution. But the opposite is true, too. The oft-touted abilities of the medium — to bring a listener into a host’s perspective, to tailor length to what a story calls for, to find an audience without a production company or a book deal — make it possible for podcasts to challenge our preconceptions, acknowledge uncertainties within the flawed criminal justice system, and help us sympathize with less-heard perspectives. That’s what makes a podcast like Ear Hustle so radical: it uses the abilities of the podcast to share the humanity of people who have committed crimes.

At their best, true crime podcasts serve as a check against oversimplified TV crime narratives, drawing back the curtain on systemic abuses of power. But that means pushing away from the bingeable formula: the reassuring, familiar story of a good victim, an evil suspect, a case closed. Solving a whodunit might offer a satisfying answer, but in the American criminal justice system, it’s not the right question to ask.

Charley Locke writes about podcasts for publications including Wired, New York Magazine, and Texas Monthly. She also produces live stories for Pop-Up Magazine.