Opinion: can the true crime genre help us to understand what is true justice and how to achieve it?

True crime is a broad genre of entertainment and, at its rare best, education. In books, magazines, movies, and podcasts, the popularity of the genre has risen and fallen repeatedly over the last one hundred years in many countries and cultures and is currently very much in vogue again. 

Justice is something different. First, it is not entertainment. Second, while it may entail education as a component - and relevant education may help us to think about and even approach justice - it is not a form of education in itself. 

Rather, justice is an idea and a goal. It has diffuse philosophical, theological, cultural and experiential roots and no era, place, or form of government ever has produced a consensus on what exactly justice is in its essence. Indeed, even the narrower concept of distributive justice—the idea of a societal, mutual effort to give everyone his or her due—defies consensus in practice. In short, while the idea and the pursuit of justice both seem to be universal human values, we never have agreed on what exactly justice is.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, an interview with Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, the makers of true crime podcast West Cork about the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier

So how, if at all, can the true crime genre help us to make progress toward a consensus on what is true justice and how to achieve it? Although we may not ever reach it, can we come closer to a consensus on justice in part with the help of the true crime genre?

I think the answer is a qualified yes. But if true crime is to help us in that quest for justice, we must understand clearly what aspects of the genre advance the search for consensus on justice and what aspects slow, divert, or even impede that search. 

The true crime genre can be both helpful and harmful in the pursuit of consensus on justice. Let's start with the helpful. True crime can provide a shared experience for millions of people so that they can discuss questions of justice with a common base of information, even if they may draw conflicting conclusions. Also, true crime can simply get people interested in the question of justice. It can raise their consciousness and provoke their curiosity and concern.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, an interview with Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, creators of the Netflix series Making a Murderer

True crime can provide concrete examples in specific cases on which we can approach something close to a consensus. For example, this person got exactly what he had coming or, by contrast, this person was treated quite unfairly; this conviction is reliable for Reasons A, B, and C or this one is unreliable for Reasons X, Y, and Z. 

With those concrete examples, we then can consider and discuss more abstractly the factors that made an outcome just or unjust or reliable or unreliable. We can also consider recurring opportunities in future cases to reinforce the factors that led to justice and reliability, and to change the factors that led to injustice and unreliability. In doing this, and in seeking to come closer to consensus on justice generally, we might bear in mind John Dewey’s elegant insight that "democracy begins in conversation".

And true crime can provide the concrete, clarifying stories that grip people, that they find memorable and that they can repeat to persuade others in conversation. We human beings have brains that seek, grasp and draw power from stories. The stories of true crime can become a source of broad policy engagement and commitment. They can be powerful elements in efforts both to reinforce the good and to change the bad.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Dean Strang talks about Making A Murderer

But again, the true crime genre can also do harm. True crime depictions can feed our worst voyeuristic tendencies. They can glorify violence or provoke shameful responses to violence or death. More subtly, they can lead to the dead end of solipsism: an inward-gazing preoccupation with one’s own emotions or opinions, all as represented by one example. We can become overly attached to one victim, one accused, one case. A solipsistic reaction is the very opposite of engaging in thoughtful conversation with others that might expand consensus. It is self-engagement that tends to become more and more intense, even obsessive, and thus more and more alienating to and disinterested in other people.

Relatedly, true crime depictions can also divert us to armchair detective work on one past case, distracting us almost completely from opportunities to work constructively to avoid bad outcomes in many more present and future cases and to reinforce measures that tend to promote good outcomes. In short, the true crime genre can cause us to focus on a crime rather than on people and a future-oriented effort to advance justice for everyone.

True crime depictions can deceive us, or at least erode critical thinking, if they are misunderstood as offering certainty about conclusions of guilt or innocence, of right or wrong, of justice or injustice. Indeed, the true crime genre can lull us into believing mistakenly that uncertainty can be eliminated in the pursuit of justice. It can offer stories that, although true in one sense, are also unreal in the tidiness of their beginnings, middles and endings.

There is no tidiness to the real story. That is especially true when we are assessing human intentions, human weaknesses or root causes.

The truth is that a major problem in the administration of any earthly system of justice is thinking clearly about and adhering to principles that guide us in addressing residual uncertainty. In the end in real-life courtrooms, something or even everything important is often murky and uncertain. 

There is no tidiness to the real story. That is especially true when we are assessing human intentions, human weaknesses or root causes. What level of uncertainty will we tolerate in depriving someone of life or liberty? What level of uncertainty instead requires moral people to err on the side of freedom? These are core questions of justice on which we would have to reach consensus before we could agree on how to define justice itself.

The true crime genre can help us advance toward a shared grasp of the concept of true justice, but it also can complicate or even frustrate the effort to come to that consensus.  The genre’s net effect depends on its consumers, on us. We can get lost in the unfairness of one past case. Or we can use past cases to inspire us to a better conversation about, and better outcomes in, the hundreds of thousands or millions of present and current cases that will arise near and far. What we consume can fuel us productively - or it can turn around and consume us.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ