Studying impacts of true crime media

True crime podcasts can be either healing or retraumatizing for crime victims or their loved ones. A Nebraska researcher is exploring the popular genre with an eye toward developing best practices for the industry, journalists and perhaps even the justice system. 

True crime podcasts have exploded in popularity in recent years, but people’s embrace of crime as entertainment is nothing new. Agatha Christie is the No. 1-selling novelist of all time, noted Kelli Boling, assistant professor of advertising and public relations.  

About 73% of true crime podcast listeners are women, and Boling’s research has focused on listeners who have experienced domestic violence themselves. For many, the listening experience can be healing. 

“They’re putting themselves in the same situation, but this time they have complete control, and it becomes healing instead of traumatizing.” 

Kelli Bohling, front, Kaitlin Van Loon and Haley Hamel

But true crime podcasts also can be exploitative, sensationalistic and turn killers into celebrities. This can make victims and co-victims – friends and loved ones of victims – feel revictimized, Boling said. 

“There is good in the genre. I think the good outweighs the bad,” she said. The genre helps educate women on how to avoid being victims. Some in law enforcement have begun welcoming podcasts that focus on cold cases as a potential jump start to an investigation.

Boling’s research involves interviewing co-victims of crimes covered by popular true crime media to better understand how their lives are affected and to create best practices for the true crime media industry and potentially the criminal justice system. She also plans to survey 5,000 people. Among the issues she wants to explore: listeners’ perceptions of ethics in the business, and their perceptions of the differences between podcasts produced by journalists and those from nonjournalists. 

For her part, the only true-crime podcasts Boling listens to nowadays are hosted by journalists. 

She hopes her research can build on the genre’s benefits.  

“We’re at a really critical place where the genre can become the lowest of the low or it can take a stronger step in the direction of justice.”