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How do true crime podcasts impact public interest in criminal cases?

True crime fans know the feeling: whether you’re coming home from work, folding the laundry or getting ready for bed, once you hit play on your favorite podcast, you’re swept up in a captivating story of criminal investigation and human psychology.

True crime tales feature the incredible resilience of survivors and the satisfaction of knowing justice has been served. They have the power to generate incredible public interest in criminal cases that mobilize people around the world. But they also depict the gruesome details of humanity at its worst. 

Although it seems like the genre is now exploding in popularity across all forms of media, it has actually had an enduring fanbase for centuries, Kelli Boling, Ph.D., told Fox News Digital during a phone call. Boling is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications who researches true crime podcasts and their audiences.

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Podchaser, a podcast database website that aims to aggregate podcast information from various platforms, has over 23,000 podcasts in its true crime category. 

A study from Pew Research Center found that true crime is the most common topic among top-ranked podcasts, and 34% of U.S. adults who have listened to a podcast in the past year say they regularly listen to podcasts about true crime.

Though the true crime genre might not be new, it has only grown more popular over time. People love to learn about criminology, psychology and the American justice system. 

“The FOX True Crime Podcast w/ Emily Compagno,” for example, has 4.7 stars on Apple Podcasts, and Compagno herself has 444K followers on Instagram.

Compagno has been praised for the depth of her reporting, her sensitivity and her ability to make complex topics easily understandable. Boling suggested that the education aspect of true crime has huge potential to make positive change.

She has covered cases including the Boston Marathon bomber, the Idaho murders of four college students, the story of Holly Dunn and how she survived the Railroad Killer and more.

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Boling cited cases of podcasts becoming so popular that fans waited outside courthouses while trials proceeded within, and even caused a trial to change venues due to the reach of local coverage. 

Murder of Hae Min Lee

The first season of the podcast “Serial” focused on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, for which her boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed was convicted and imprisoned before a series of appeals brought the case to the Supreme Court.

“There were fans at the courthouses in Baltimore and at the U.S. Supreme Court absolutely advocating for his release. Not only that… he got released and had a job waiting for him at a local college. So public perception of Adnan was completely changed by that podcast,” Boling said.

Syed was employed as a program associate at Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.

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“Serial” turned the true crime genre on its head as the first major true crime publication to focus on the alleged perpetrator rather than the victim, whose family would not speak with the host.

“[The host] centered the voice of the accused, literally. His voice was centered in every episode of the podcast through her phone interviews with him,” said Boling. 

Indeed, audiences had come to believe Syed was innocent after listening to “Serial,” and Syed now has a large base of people advocating on his behalf. Charges against Syed were dropped, but then reinstated due to a procedural violation.

Killing of Cooper Harris

Season two of the “Breakdown” podcast by the Atlanta Journal Constitution covered the story of Justin Ross Harris, who went on trial for the killing of his infant son, Cooper, when he was left in a hot car for hours.

Harris maintains it was an accident, and his wife testified on his behalf even after “Breakdown” publicized the fact that Ross was cheating on her with a 16-year-old girl.

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“So when that comes out, we all hate him now, right? That doesn’t make him a murderer… The judge in that trial, Judge Mary Staley, actually granted a change of venue because of the pretrial coverage that had already happened, and because she knew that the Atlanta Journal Constitution would be covering it as a live podcast,” Boling told Fox News Digital.

Miami crime scene investigators gather evidence after police shot a man near Northwest Seventh Court and 57th Street in Miami.

In the end, Harris’ conviction was overturned in a ruling that his affair, which was presented as motivation for killing his son, had an unfair prejudicial effect on the jury.

“Did it change our opinion of that dad? Absolutely… Did it change the opinion of the defense, of the prosecution? Probably. But yes, podcasts have a very powerful way of impacting [these cases]. And I think a lot of it has to do with the audio portion of the media,” Boling said.

Boling emphasized true crime’s unique position as media that is assumed to be, by definition, true, but is framed as a narrative.

“Well, we’ve been sitting around campfires telling stories for centuries, right? We get drawn into the story and get emotionally involved in a way that we may not in watching a documentary,” she said.

“We feel like we have a relationship with the hosts. We feel like we know the defendant well enough to go to the courthouse, take a day off and hold a sign outside for them.”

The accessibility of true crime creators to their fans is also unique among media and, especially when a case is being reported on as it is unfolding, inevitably leads to some fans conducting their own investigations without being bound by any set of standards.

Fans have the chance to interact with one another and with true crime creators on internet forums, but amateur detectives have, in the past, publicized personal information of people involved in ongoing cases and even turned against family members of the deceased.

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This feeling of involvement, of following a case step-by-step, is enhanced by the medium itself. Listening to a podcast is an intimate form of media consumption; it’s just you and the host, who is speaking directly into your ears if you’re wearing headphones. 

And when a detailed picture is painted of a perpetrator or victim, it is easy to see why listeners become personally invested in the outcomes of cases they have been following so closely for so long.

Boling explained that “Serial” was the first major true crime publication to focus on the alleged perpetrator rather than the victim, whose family refused interviews.

“So ethically, then the question becomes, should she still cover the story? She did… and it absolutely changed the genre, and I think, unfortunately, opened the door for a lot of less-than-ethical productions,” Boling said.

Journalists and lawyers who create true crime podcasts have ethical codes to follow, but there is no accepted genre-wide ethical standard.

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Yellow tape that reads "CRIME SCENE - DO NOT ENTER" is stretched across a crime scene blurred in the background.

Boling discussed the “celebrifying” of famous killers, like Jeffery Dahmer in Netflix’s dramatization of his crimes. She says that producers of various true crime projects whom she has spoken with in her research suggest focusing on the “why” when choosing a case to cover.

“Why are you making this? Why is this story important to tell? I think that is where the ethical conversation starts. Do we need another documentary on Dahmer? We don’t. That story has been run into the ground a million times,” Boling told Fox News Digital.

Boling expressed concern over the implications of turning criminals into celebrities and the effects on the families of victims. She emphasized that production companies can make whatever they want to, but suggested that the brighter side of true crime is its educational potential.

“What are people going to learn from this? What are we going to prevent? Who are we going to educate? What type of legislation are we going to move forward?”

Boling’s upcoming research is set to investigate the state of ethics in true crime podcasting and suggest a set of guidelines.

It’s uncharted territory, but in a world where Evan Peters won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Jeffery Dahmer and where there is a thriving market for the possessions of serial killers, she returned to the idea of carefully considering the motivations for creating any given piece of true crime media.

“How can we work toward the good part of true crime, which is education and healing and finding closure for friends and family members? Good does come out of it.”

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