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The Truth behind True Crime

Published on November 16, 2017

The Truth behind True Crime

Three Arts and Entertainment Network (A&E) executives – Laura Fleury, Peter Tarshis and Sean Gottlieb – shared their expertise of “true crime” programs with Eastern Connecticut State University on Nov. 8. Complete with promo clips, intriguing audience questions and thoughtful responses, the panel generated dialog on what goes into capturing real-life crime narratives on television.

“We’ve all been affected by crime … they’re powerful, important stories,” said Sociology Professor William Lugo in his introduction to the program. To begin the discussion, Tarshis, a producer of TV shows like “The First 48” and “The Eleven,” addressed the unique opportunity that television production teams have in being allowed into certain environments, particularly crime scenes. “We’re very mindful of that incredible privilege … we try to humanize the process.”

Fleury, who has worked on “Beyond Scared Straight” and “Cold Case Files,” agreed that the access is a “great luxury” and should be approached as such. She highlighted the importance of consciousness in order to respect all aspects of a situation. “Every person in this story has rights,” she said, from the victims and their families, to the law enforcement involved, to the suspects and their families. To protect such rights, a multitude of steps are taken. Releases are signed regarding participants and objects, as well as following journalistic protocol and partnering with specialized lawyers.

The executives argued that the true crime shows they work on grant people a window into what is actually going on. Not only that, but they have helped solve crimes that otherwise may not have been pursued by police departments – due to lack of resources or time, for example. With dedicated social media followings, widespread viewership and avid research teams behind them, the programs both raise and answer many questions.

An audience member asked whether or not the current “spirited” political climate changes the direction of what can be screened. When it comes to talking about social issues, a phrase used at A&E is “hiding the broccoli” – the act of integrating something that may not be appealing to everyone, but is nonetheless important, into something that will captivate all parties. Part of the job is to find ways to engage people, and the executives aim to do this in as observational a manner as possible.

Fleury pointed out that at this moment in time, there is not as much trust in the government and overall legal system as there has been in the past. This makes the idea that “maybe somebody got it wrong” more compelling, seen in the sweeping popularity of shows like “Making a Murderer.” The concept of a gray area or wrongful conviction used to be a “non-starter,” according to Tarshis; viewers simply wanted to see “bad guys” put away. Coupled with these contemporary outlooks, he noted, the numerous distribution mediums available now have opened new doors for telling and sharing stories.

Just as the executives and their colleagues have had to adapt to how people are retaining programs, Gottlieb – producer of shows like “8 Minutes” and “Live PD” – drew attention to the fact that audiences have had to acclimate to how shows are being broadcasted. On shows such as “Live PD,” there is not always a clear resolution as there is on shows such as “The First 48.” “Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s ambiguous, sometimes it’s action-packed,” Gottlieb said. “Different situations bring out different audiences … you see it almost immediately online.” The panel compared true crime viewers to those of sports games.

Given the nature of true crime, one student asked about the ethical obligations that arise during the filming process. In response, Tarshis recalled working on “Codependent,” a show centering on codependent drug addicts. A couple wanted to empty their drug supply the night before attempting recovery, and the woman involved accidentally overdosed. The television crew stepped in and called 911, despite her boyfriend’s claims that she was fine. “Basic decency and human life is more important than any hour we put on the air,” Tarshis concluded.

“It’s a living, breathing process,” said Fleury. “We always remind ourselves that these are real people.” The executives collectively agreed that they are not exempt from the heavy emotional influence that is often evoked from their television shows, and they have assorted methods of dealing with it. While Tarshis tries to compartmentalize his life and avoid taking on the degrees of sadness he sees at work, Fleury tends to focus on those who survive bad situations and come out stronger. In short, the group expressed that true crime in its entirety serves a number of significant purposes. “You start to realize that these shows have real impacts,” affirmed Gottlieb.

Written by Jordan Corey

Categories: Academics, Sociology