By Dana Rossi
I am a true crime producer. And I am often asked why I do it, if it bothers me, how I deal with families of victims, and how we find stories to tell. So I jumped at the chance to hear what others—namely the best in the field—had to say on this as well. I attended New York Women in Film & Television’s True Crime Stories: Relationships and Responsibilities panel on October 25, which was moderated by Andrea Marks whose recent article “How a True Crime Podcast Became a Mental-Health Support Group” in The Atlantic explored why women are more drawn to the true crime genre than men. Kelly Loudenberg (Netflix’s The Confession Tapes), Bari Pearlman (CNN’s Death Row Stories), and Stephanie Steele (VP of Current Production for Oxygen) had fascinating insight into why we do what we do; while some of their answers were all too familiar (well, to an insider), others were things I hadn’t considered before.
1. Women love true crime. But why? I’m not kidding—I had an interview today and someone asked me exactly this. And I was able to nail it! (Thank you Kelly, Bari and Stephanie.) For the female viewer, true crime is addictive for two reasons. First, the emotional connection—women have a tendency to connect emotionally to stories, and there aren’t more charged stories than true crime. And second, we love the detective work—getting to sink our teeth into a mystery to figure out who the guilty party is. Even when we’re wrong, we love the investigative process.
2. True crime television: serious journalism, or binge-able entertainment? Well, it’s both. And striking that balance when creating in this medium can be tricky, but it’s the most important aspect. There is an obligation, of course, to report a story truthfully and factually—that is not negotiable. The entertainment part comes in with compelling storytelling—and there shouldn’t be a need to stray from fact in order to do this.
From Left to Right: moderator & journalist Andrea Marks, director Bari Pearlman of CNN’s Death Row Stories, Stephanie Steele VP of current production for Oxygen Media, Kelly Loudenberg creator of The Confession Tapes for Netflix, and Rosalind Murphy, VP of NYWIFT programming.
3. Is there anything we won’t do? Oh yes. I know it seems that with the deluge of true crime television out there that nothing is off limits. But that’s not true. At Oxygen, for example, they stay away from stories about children. Abduction stories are another no go. And Bari specifically mentioned she has no interest in doing stories about pedophilia. And while it’s true that these crimes are happening, and do need to be reported on somewhere, every producer or network that focuses on this genre have places they just won’t go.
4. Dead bodies: to show or not to show? This is a tough one, and when it was brought up, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the answer. On one hand, you want (and need) to be respectful not only to the victims but to these families who live with the agony of their loved one’s death every single day. So you’d think showing the body would be wrong. However, a photo does tell a whole story, and conveys the gravity of what happened to this person. And especially if the photo is a photo the jury saw, and it helped to influence their decision, seeing that photo is necessary to tell a complete story. But there is a way to do it respectfully—maybe just a close up of a hand, or a blurry shot. It tells the story, but with the feelings of real families always in mind.
5. Why do we do this? The most popular answer? The hope for justice. And we may not get what we hope for. But that desire to help bring justice to someone who needs it is the driving force behind the true crime filmmaker.