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The rise of true crime and criminology

8 February 2018
Why are we so drawn to true crime stories?
Associate Professor Rebecca Scott Bray discusses the explosion of the true crime genre and the important questions it raises about crime, victims, criminal justice, and new media in contemporary society.

The influx of quality true crime shows like Netflix’s Making a Murderer, as well as podcasts like Serial, Bowraville, In the Dark, Trace, and Dirty John, have seen the true crime genre transform from what was once considered lowbrow late-night entertainment, into critically acclaimed programming, that’s now firmly cemented its place in popular culture.

In the 90s and early 00s true crime was mainly defined by over-dramatized half-truths and violence. Over the last few years however, the genre has evolved into a global conversation and assessment of our criminal justice systems; examining our theories on criminality and law enforcement across a range of different media. The growing global appetite for true crime has spawned interactive podcasts like My Favorite Murder, which encourages a global community of “murderinos” to send in information on hometown murders, that are later covered in “minisodes”.

True crime has become a part of high culture, with a growing audience eager and willing to explore the extremities of human behaviour, especially the psychological and social factors that trigger certain individuals to commit heinous crimes. Not only has the conversation broadened and the media evolved, but consequently so too has our engagement with true crime; podcasts and documentaries entertain and educate viewers and listeners, but they have also had profound effects on formal justice processes.

We’ve reached a point where people are no longer satisfied with reading, watching or listening to true crime, they want to understand criminality and play an active part in how the justice system responds to crimes, whether that means lobbying to re-open contentious investigations, or discussing cases and their podcasts on Reddit, as was the case with Making a Murderer, and the ground-breaking podcast Serial. Such media, their informal and formal effects on criminal justice, and the way we interact with them raise important questions about crime, victims, criminal justice and new media in contemporary society.

Students who are interested in true crime, criminology and sociology will be happy to hear that The University of Sydney’s new criminology minor delivers a suite of units that investigate our ongoing universal fascination with crime and criminal behaviour, by delving into the socio-economic, cultural and historical aspects of crime.

So, what exactly is it that criminologists do? Criminologists are interested in the spectrum of crime, its causation, and responses to offending. Some criminologists focus on the psychological origins of crime or discovering the roots of criminal behaviour in biography or family history, but our focus is more on the socio-economic, cultural and historical aspects of crime.

Serial killing is a valuable way to show how these factors come into play, and because it’s a subject that fascinates students and often attracts them to criminology study, it’s now a key topic in the new criminology minor unit Crime, Media and Culture.

When looking at serial killing, there is a tendency for researchers to stress the individual pathology of serial killers. While serial killing is clearly an extreme crime, other researchers have developed more sociologically informed perspectives to argue that serial killing reflects normal processes of modernisation.

For example, they argue that the dispassionate style of rational thought that ideally characterises scientific modes of thinking associated with the Enlightenment is reproduced by serial killers, who use rational strategising to plan killings, such as orchestrating abduction, torture, disposal, and sexual fantasies. Similarly, the way many serial killers consider themselves as providing a community service by ridding society of devalued and powerless groups, reflects Enlightenment and modernist thinking about ‘progress’ and social betterment.

Still, other researchers delve further into the phenomenon of serial killing and scrutinise the role of the media. Some argue that we need to examine our appetite for violence, and critically reflect on contemporary media representations that emphasise, for example, serial killing and its extreme violence against women. The argument here is that despite some contemporary dramas featuring strong female protagonists, such as The Fall, their presence does not mitigate the extent of graphic lethal violence against women that is depicted on screen. In the same way, when we think about a serial killer such as ‘Jack the Ripper’, we need to account for the media’s role in the construction of this identity, which arguably commodifies murder, masks the horrific nature of serial killing, and forgets the victims of terrible violence.

The example of serial killing is one that highlights a much broader spectrum of debate than simply individual pathology, and the new criminology minor will introduce students to new concepts, thinking and challenges within criminology more broadly.

Studying criminology at the University of Sydney will give students the knowledge, and analytical and research skills that are highly desirable to a broad range of employers from private industry to not-for-profit and government sector organisations. Graduates can also take their interest in criminology further by enrolling in the Sydney Law School’s Master of Criminology, which will allow them to expand and consolidate their skills and knowledge of crime and criminal justice, and learn from some of Australia’s leading criminologists.