In-depth true crime reporting has never been hotter. It started in 2014 when Sarah Koenig and “This American Life” released the podcast “Serial”, which explored the murder of Hae Min Lee. The podcast shattered download records and was, presumably, somewhat responsible for continued efforts around the case.
Last year, HBO released the documentary The Jinx, which scrutinized Robert Durst, who was involved in three murders – it was huge. Netflix documentary, Making A Murderer, was just recently released on December 18th and explores the Steven Avery trial in which he is accused of the murder of Teresa Halbach. It has followed in the footsteps of “Serial” and The Jinx, drawing in massive viewer numbers. And when I say “massive”, I mean everybody has watched it. More interestingly though, everybody is talking about it.
Crowd Sourced Investigations
One of the more fascinating aspects of all three of these documentaries is the white-hot discussions they’ve ignited across online forums like Reddit. During the first season of Serial, thousands of listeners discussed and dissected the case, exchanging theories, questions, and relevant “evidence” (as determined by the Redditors themselves).
But is this a good thing? Is it helping or hurting? What is the value, if any, coming out of these crowdsourced investigations?
There are several benefits to not only these documentaries but their spin-off discussion groups. First, these cases are receiving an insane amount of exposure. Would the majority of people know about Steven Avery or Adnan Syed if these documentaries hadn’t been made and the open forum discussions entertained? Probably not. If these cases truly were miscarriages (or at least unconvincing applications) of justice, as the documentaries claim, then the exposure and general interest is a good thing. The more eyes and voices, the more pressure there is on the institutions to chase integrity.
A second benefit is that hundreds of thousands of people are being recruited to fight for the innocence of those involved. Both “Serial” and Making A Murderer imply (more so in the latter) that the accused could very well be innocent. The Manitowoc County Courthouse is being deluged with requests for the Steven Avery records, all by amateur sleuths wanting to dig deeper. More sources for potential breakthroughs and again, more pressure to get it right for those who may be in a position to change course.
And the documentaries have certainly brought about change; Adnan is getting a new hearing examining evidence brought to light in “Serial” and over 129,000 people signed a Whitehouse petition asking that Steven Avery be pardoned.
But with all the good that has come about from these shows, there are still some significant problems with the crowdsourced investigations happening on Reddit and other discussion forums.
First, it should be noted that no change has come about directly because of amateur investigations. In other words, the discussions online haven’t uncovered new evidence, identified new suspects, or directly brought about new trials. Adnan’s trial is the result of evidence uncovered by the “Serial” team, not by Reddit investigators. The White House responded to the Steven Avery petition, saying the case needed to be handled at the state level.
Second, the Reddit forums have brought some unwelcome scrutiny to the families of the victims, particularly in the case of “Serial”. Hae Min Lee’s brother posted the following on the “Serial” subreddit:
To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattck when she got the new that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping,crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup… you guys are disgusting. SHame on you. I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5mil listeners.
The families of Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee, Steven Avery, and Teresa Halbach have been thoroughly probed, and at times, even vilified on the Internet. There is simply no control over who says what, often times resulting in unsubstantiated, hurtful rumors. For example, a rumor spread that Adnan’s brother, Tanveer, had called Adnan a “masterful liar”. Eventually Tanveer himself had to go onto Reddit to correct the rumor.
Finally, the conversations happening in online forums is significantly influenced by the narrative told in the documentaries. After watching Making A Murderer, it’s clear that the filmmakers believe Avery was framed for the murder of Teresa Halbach. However, the filmmakers also left significant evidence out of the documentary that, at the least, casts Avery in a darker shade.
The Internet in general – social media in particular – has given everyone a voice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The exposure cases like these has received – potentially unjust cases – has at the least raised questions about the effectiveness of our justice system.
But it’s debatable whether the informal crowdsourced investigations ignited by these documentaries are providing any added value beyond the original content of the series themselves. In many instances, they’ve created unsubstantiated rumors more than they have exposed any new truth.
What seems to be clear is that these discussions, as heated as they may be, aren’t getting us any hot leads.
Stephen Altrogge is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Florida. He writes about tech, marketing, faith, and lots of other things. He’s married to Jen and has three young girls. Every day he consumes more coffee than the entire population of Colombia. He knows more about Star Wars than any respectable man should, and he runs more than any sane man would. He once attempted to eat a 2 pound hamburger in under an hour. He failed.
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