On YouTube, the true crime trend is even more troubling than on TV

The ethics of true crime stories were first called into question after the release of the podcast Serial. Now, amateur detectives on YouTube deserve similar scrutiny. 

“Hey, what’s up you guys?”

Shane Dawson begins his YouTube video like many YouTubers do, greeting his 11 million subscribers as if they were friends. Yet within two minutes he is graphically describing a murder, and within 10 more he is sat in the dark in his bedroom, reading Facebook messages sent to him by the murderer’s closest friends. In the video, entitled “My Friend Got Life In Prison”, Dawson has taken it upon himself to investigate the motives of a man who killed his uncle in 2011.

Dawson, who was once the third most subscribed YouTuber on the site, has accumulated nearly 5 million views on the video in less than a week – gaining an additional 3.4 million on “My Friend Got Life In Prison: Part 2”. In these videos, the YouTuber reveals the name of the murderer and the victim, shows off the murderer’s Facebook profile and pictures, messages the murderer’s childhood friends, speculates about his drug use, and shows off old footage and yearbook photos of the culprit. At one point in the video, he begins reading aloud a message from one of the murderer’s friends before stopping himself.

“I’m not going to put in what she said out of respect for his family,” Dawson says. Nonetheless, the first part of the obscured sentence remains in the video (“I’m pretty sure that his un–”) leading many in the comment section to speculate about sexual abuse. The top comment on the video, with nearly 7,000 thumps up, instructs Dawson: “YOU SHOULD GO SEE HIM IN PRISON”.

True crime stories became a global phenomenon after the release of the investigative podcast Serial in 2014, followed by Netflix’s original documentary Making a Murderer in 2015. Both of these programmes followed men who had been charged for murder, episodically examining the evidence to question whether they really were guilty of their crimes. Both shows were criticised for poor ethical practices, with the families of the victims considering them an invasion into their private grief.

Yet although these shows were criticised, they were at least made by professional journalists and filmmakers who had an understanding of both media law and ethics. If these people failed – as some claim – in practicing proper ethics in regards to reporting on a murder, what chance does a YouTuber stand?

Jackie Newton, a British journalism lecturer who researches the ethics of tragedy reporting, is troubled by the trend. “Our work with bereaved families suggests that they understand the involvement of journalists in tragedy and often build up relationships with trusted reporters,” says Newton, a former journalist and author of the book Reporting Bad News: Negotiating the Boundaries between Intrusion and Fair Representation. “What they don't understand is the need to make murder an entertainment, even if it is fictional.” There is no indication that Dawson received permission from the victim’s family to make his video, something Newton suggests is “the least” YouTubers should do.

In “My Neighbour was Murdered | The Full Story”, YouTuber Meg Cat tells her 147,000 subscribers about the murder of her elderly neighbour, naming the victim and her place of work, and detailing how many times she was stabbed. Although she disclaims that she is “not trying to be disrespectful”, she defends her video by saying: “[It’s] not like any of her family members watch my videos, I’m sure.” In the video, she speculates on the murderer’s motives and says she is “happy” he later died. Later, she defended herself in the comment section: “There were a lot of unanswered questions about what happened and I wanted to answer them.”

“Storytime” videos have become popular on YouTube in the last few years, each featuring a vlogger who dramatically recounts a real life event to the camera. These are often mocked as hyperbolic and histrionic clickbait, with a popular meme making fun of the trend (one of the first jokes about it read: “starbucks employee: i forgot your straw omg give me one sec! / youtuber: STORY TIME: MY STARBUCKS BARISTA HAD ALZHEIMERS?!??!?!?!???”). Yet although many storytime videos about murder seem faked and false, many are all too real.

In “My Friend Is A MURDERER! Live Footage!| Storytime”, YouTuber Nicole Juliana shows her 41,000 subscribers real CCTV footage of a shooting in New York. Regardless of whether or not she was friends with the murderer, as she claims, the footage is real and her video lead many in the comment section to probe into the identities of the murderer and their victim. In “STORY TIME - Murder At My School”, a smaller YouTuber with only 36 subscribers recounts a 1997 murder in his local community and spreads a rumour that the victim and culprit knew one another, and the victim “laughed at” the murderer’s penis. The thumbnail for the video features pictures of knives, a screaming emoji, and the word “Tragic” in red font. “It was a little bit gloomy, I know, I’m really sorry” the YouTuber says of his video as it ends, before telling viewers to make sure they subscribe “because what is the point of doing this [otherwise]”.

Newton says that journalists in the US and the UK make considerable ethical efforts to ensure their reports cause as little further harm to the bereaved as possible. “By contrast, many of the YouTube videos concentrate on the presenter, the perpetrator and sensationalism,” she says.

In one video seen by Newton, a YouTuber explains his obsession with killers and horror movies, revealing he likes “dark, twisted stuff”. As Newton puts it: “Imagine someone with those motivations making a video about a member of your family who had been murdered.” These videos are accompanied by advertisements for mainstream companies.

The taste for true crime clearly isn’t going anywhere. In 2017, Netflix released The Keepers and The Confession Tapes, while Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders aired during a weekend-long True Crime Marathon on SundanceTV. In itself, turning murder into entertainment is ethically difficult, but these issues are only exacerbated when filmmakers do not comply with any ethical codes. On YouTube, the lack of regulations and rules surrounding this type of content (as well as the sheer amount of money that can be made via advertisements on such heavily-viewed videos) mean it will undoubtedly continue to thrive. 

“I'm gonna keep looking for more and more answers,” says Shane Dawson at the end of “My Friend Got Life In Prison: Part 2”. “I've tried to reach out to his family but I think I'm gonna do it again. Maybe I'll try to visit him in jail, I don't know.”

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh