Welcome to True Crime Tuesday! This is a monthly series for the first Tuesday of the month where I write about different things true crime and horror related. It obviously has nothing to do with my podcast Sick Sad World.
I write and talk about intersectionality a lot. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term to discuss how we need to look at all movements, like feminism, through a critical lens that incorporates race, religion, sexuality, ability, gender, and other oppressions. This critical lens is something that should be applied everywhere, but especially when we’re reporting on crime.
I think that a lot of times when we think of the crime journalist, many people think of a noble sort of journalist that applies objectivity to keep the average person in the know. But as history has shown us, crime writing can cause great harm to the individuals that you are writing on. Criminality has been used to justify discrimination, violence, and oppression against different marginalized groups.
Earlier this year, National Geographic acknowledged this history and the ways in which it participated as a publication. And they aren’t the only ones.
Every major publication has actively perpetuated harmful and dangerous ideas at various points in time.
Donna Minkowitz wrote about how she perpetuated anti-trans sentiments when covering the murder of trans man Brandon Teena. Despite being part of the queer community as a lesbian, Minkowitz had a very limited knowledge of the trans experience. Her article inspired the movie Boys Don’t Cry which has been criticized for casting a cis woman for the character based on Brandon Teena. This decision can’t be separated from the framing of Brandon as a woman who had been abused into becoming trans.
We’ve also had reporters focus on Brock Turner’s “promising” athletic career while only briefly mentioning the violent sexual assault he committed. Reporters have tried to dig up dirt on Black, Mexican, and Indigenous victims of violent crimes. These are actions that are still happening to this day.
The assumption that journalism is objective and doesn’t provide its own narrative of current events is one that has had serious consequences for marginalized people. There are still humans deciding which stories should be reported on, who to interview, and what details and facts are important. In truth, there is no real objectivity when it comes to pretty much anything.
This was something that Ida B. Wells saw in the late 19th century. As a Black woman, she saw the dehumanization of lynching victims by white reporters. The idea that Black men were rapists was often used in reporting in order to justify the violence done onto them. But through her own reporting, Wells found that in most cases, the lynchings were not because of rape accusations and that the victims were often a part of consensual interracial relationships.
These are the kinds of consequences that we face when we ignore intersectionality and assume “facts” means “facts devoid of oppressive biases.”
Journalism is still a constructed narrative. It still relies on the interpretations of writers, editors, and their sources.
It has the power to define who is a victim and who we should be afraid of. It has the power to decide who deserves justice, and who should be forgotten. Journalism has the ability to create change or keep the status quo.
According to an analysis by Julie B. Wiest, many criminologists believe that giving nicknames to serial killers often glamorizes the violence, and even goes as far to deify the perpetrators of that violence. It also often shifts the focus away from the victims to the sensationalizing of the killer’s past.
This is why Jasmine refused to use BTK when referring to Daniel Rader and the crimes he committed in our “Killer Confessions” episode. He created his own nickname for the notoriety and fame. In fact, we argue that he only committed these crimes to become famous as BTK.
When we acknowledge the power that journalism has, we can work to confront it.
That’s why we need journalism, and specifically crime writing, to be intersectional. If we aren’t coming to each issue and each crime ready to peer through a critical analysis of power and oppression, then we are likely to enforce the violence that occurs.
In order for journalism to become more intersectional, we need to have more diverse voices contributing to the field. We need to have writers of colour, disabled writers, trans writers. Because our issues are often ignored by mainstream media, they aren’t taken as seriously.
Bringing in diverse voices will bring in perspectives and nuances to the writing that would otherwise be overlooked. That’s why the podcast series Missing and Murdered has been growing in popularity. The host, Connie Walker, is a reporter from the Cree nation and both seasons of the podcast deal with unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Arguably, her background, knowledge, and passion for justice are the reasons she was able to uncover new information in both cases (although arguably, you could say that it was because originally law enforcement didn’t follow up on leads thoroughly).
Journalism has been forced to grow and change because of the growing diversity of writers.
There are trans writers who have created guidelines for writing about transgender issues to stop the dehumanization and the societal sanctioning of violence against trans people. And if we didn’t give voice to disabled writers, the only time we’d show up in the media is as inspiration porn meant to guilt other disabled people into “overcoming” their own disability.
Crime reporting needs to have nuance and intersectionality in order to make positive changes. We know that reporting can effect change. We saw it when the producers of Serial brought so much attention to Adnan Syed’s case, he was able to overturn his conviction. So we need to hold these writers accountable to the power they have. So they need to be intersectional in order for that power to be used responsibly. Because if you’re not thinking of the marginalized groups that will be affected, you aren’t using that power responsibly.
We don’t just need our pop culture to hold better representation. We need it everywhere, and we especially need it in journalism. Without that representation, any claim to intersectionality will be superficial. And without intersectionality, we are just repeating the same mistakes that get people hurt.