Amateur reporting affecting the validity of crime journalism

Steven Avery, the focus of crime documentary Making a Murderer, in a lineup

As sensationalist crime reporting becomes more popular, some are questioning its accuracy, and the impact that it can have on public opinion

By Amanda Henderson Jones and Victor Depois

From bloggers to YouTubers, many content creators portray themselves as journalists in spite of the lack of quality control of these platforms. With the development of streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube, crime reporting has undergone major changes.

While the content they produce is often categorized as true crime – a non-fiction genre in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people – experts like criminologist Michael Arntfield are worried that these creators are more focused on entertainment than facts.

“It appeals to people who don’t think very critically about things, and people who love conspiracies,” he said. “People who don’t read in order to get the full story.”

Arntfield was a police officer and detective for sixteen years in London, Ont. before turning to academia. He is now an associate professor at Western University, teaching criminology. He thinks that despite YouTube being a formidable platform for sharing content, its lack of quality control is detrimental to crime reporting.

Professor Michael Arntfield. Photo courtesy Pacific Standard

“You don’t see a lot of friends in police departments or people working in the field and forensics cooperating with these productions because there’s actually no quality controls,” he said. Regardless of perceived quality, true crime content is undeniably popular. It garners millions of views on YouTube, and has been the subject of Netflix documentaries like Making a Murderer and Evil Genius that have a cult-like following.

The creator’s opinion is often clear in these productions. As a result, this content is often criticized for not fairly portraying the whole story. Ken Kratz, the lead prosecutor in the case against Steven Avery, said in an interview to Maxim that Making a Murderer left key details out of the show. “If you pick and choose and edit clips over a ten-year span, you’re going to be able to spoon-feed a movie audience so they conclude what you want them to conclude… The piece is done very well, and I would have come to the same conclusion if that was the only material I was presented with.”

Julian Sher, who worked as an investigative producer on the CBC’s Fifth Estate for more than ten years, agrees that much of the content found online has more of a clickbait nature rather than actual serious reporting. Clickbait content’s main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on the link to a particular page.

Investigative journalist Julian Sher. Photo courtesy Twitter

“There is a lot of schlock about murder, gory murders, orfamily murders, kind of just junk crime,”he said. “That’s not crimereporting in the sense that it’s not only sensationalist, it’s […] pretty low-level.”

Despite the varying levels of accuracy, he is not all that worried about crime reporting being affected by the development of new media.“Good quality journalism will always rise to the top,” he said. “I think that journalists nowadays are approaching crime reporting in a much more serious way and using the same lense they applied to other types of reporting.”

Having witnessed the evolution of his profession first-hand, he is happy with the direction in which crime reporting is headed. Sher believes that tools now available to journalists such as search engines and databases account for a better coverage.

“I think it has improved,” he said. “You have a lot of people doing it. You have a lot of great investigative journalists who are focusing on crime, or organized crime, and corruption. You have the Internet now, which gives us a huge access to data which we didn’t have before.”

Even though Sher believes that improvements in journalistic tools allow for better reporting, Arntfield thinks that the issue may lie in the audience’s expectations.

“These are not users who have any real agency or ability to affect change so they’re just an idle viewer,” he said.

Sher believes that people’s interest in crime arises from their inherent will to discover the truth in these stories.

“I think that  people have hunger for justice,” he said. “My reporting has put people in jail, and my reporting has taken people out of jail, both forms of injustice. Our job as journalists is to expose abusive power, and there’s no bigger abuse than when somebody takes somebody’s life, or when some company does something that leads to the deaths of workers or people in the community.”

However, those who actually consume this content may disagree with being called “idle.” There are online forums, like Reddit, dedicated to discussion surrounding these cases, where users will closely follow events, and try to crowdsource answers based on information they found online.

When Making a Murderer was first released on Netflix, fans of the show flocked to forums,  proposing detailed theories, usually in attempt to prove Avery innocent. This discussion grew to the point that Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, held a speaking tour called “A Conversation on Justice,” that allowed for fans to discuss their theories related to Avery’s perceived innocence.

Crime YouTuber John Lordan, from Minnesota, says that he is more interested in the truth than he is in the views. However, this hasn’t stopped his true crime channel from reaching over 13 million views.

“In terms of representing the facts while being entertaining, the honest truth is that I’m not necessarily thinking about being entertaining.  I’m trying to convey the story as accurately and completely as possible.”

Lordan started his growing Youtube channel in 2013, after being inspired to report on the case of Elisa Lam, a Canadian university student who was found dead in Los Angeles. 

John Lordan’s YouTube channel LordanArts

“It’s a tragedy, and I saw it being handled on the Internet like fodder for creepy storytelling,” he said. “I was really bothered by this, because it’s a tragic, true story that a lot of people, especially college students, can relate to. […]  The truth I saw was that Elisa’s case was a possible crime, or a tragedy that we can all learn from if we have a respectful conversation about it. It was about so much more than a haunted hotel or a ghost controlled elevator.”

Lordan says that his videos are well researched and well informed. In some cases, he’ll speak to 50 different sources with the ultimate goal of passing this information onto his subscribers.

“I know people don’t have eight to 12 hours to research all these cases, so I give it to them in one hour, and include all my sources so they can dig deeper if they’re moved to.”

While YouTubers like Londan may be changing the format of how people consume their crime news, Artfield is weary of the rapidly changing industry.

“We don’t know where this genre is going,” Londan said. “It may be significantly compromised in the next 24 to 36 months based on stuff that’s being produced now. If I had to give advice to a documentary filmmaker, YouTuber or a writer, it would be to not be typecast for just doing that [true crime].”

Amanda Henderson Jones has her BA in Criminology and Sociology from Western University, is currently a graduate diploma journalism student, and hopes to continue her studies at law school next year.

Victor Depois is an avid sports connoisseur and passionate journalism student. He will graduate next spring and hopes to find a job! depoisvictor@gmail.com available 24/7