Are we all citizen journalist detective criminologists now?
When I tell people that I am a criminologist they exclaim, ‘how interesting that must be’! Some, like students at our open days, want to talk about serial killers. This may have something to do with media coverage of crime and criminal justice where atypical events are covered stereotypically in contrast to an overtypical normality (Jock Young). I counter that criminology is often more mundane than that, and more likely to be about serial burglars or, in my case, serial car thieves.
Left, and liberally-inclined, criminologists often have no truck with the media for such reasons but some independently minded journalists have always, and continue to, muckrake. The new media ecology means that new voices are being heard, for instance women podcasters. Kirsty Major discusses Serial as an investigation into the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee but also as the work of women often excluded from journalism.
Miscarriages of justice and police corruption or malpractice have not always been popular with authority, media owners and editors but have always had some traction. In the wake of Serial we now have Netflix’s Making a Murderer and HBO’S The Jinx. For a media commentator the rise of the documentary is fascinating and for the criminologist the public’s fascination with crime is ongoing.
Evidence for that fascination may range from a rise in the number of criminology degrees and students to attend them, through the cult of nordic noir, the ever growing true and fictional crime literature to exhibitions like the Museum of London’s Crime Museum Uncovered.
Great claims are made for the success of Serial or Making a Murderer in mobilising support for the wrongly accused but Rough Justice was a BBC TV series in the 1980s which highlighted a number of miscarriages of justice and successfully campaigned for the introduction of the Criminal Case Review Commission the like of which might help in some of the US cases. On the other hand the UK could do with some of the freedom of information and access that has helped the makers of US series.
Some argue that a form of miscarriage of justice occurs when the guilty are not convicted - the story seems unfinished. The Jinx focusses on accusations against millionaire Robert Durst that he murdered his wife Kathie, and later a potential witness, Susan Berman. Here the journalists act as alternative detectives or prosecutors. A form of real life Cluedo where they have to name Colonel Mustard or Miss Scarlet.
But there are dangers and concerns. Websleuths can claim some success but some actions move beyond citizen detection/journalism to vigilantism. Even if not breaking the law, ‘paedophile hunters’ may be hindering police. Life is complicated and good guys and bad guys no longer wear black or white hats to help us. The best crime dramas now reflect that. The desire to investigate or to be helpful has lead to several trials being abandoned after jurors ignored warnings not to ‘research’ the case on the internet.
Biological, psychological, sociological and political approaches are all used in criminology and might also explain our fascination with crime. We might be biologically programmed to learn from the mistakes of others or psychologically to take comfort in the difficulties of others. One sociological function of crime is to remind us of moral boundaries (Durkheim). Politically crime can function as social control - the nanny state’s armed wing will keep you safe. The conspiracy elements in Making a Murderer may deflect attention from the much wider structural problems of American society and criminal justice, particularly in respect of minority groups, even if they prove correct in any individual case.