Amber Hunt, an investigative reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer, delves into historical cases that had a lasting impact on the legal system in Crimes of the Centuries (Union Square, Jan. 2024), inspired by her podcast of the same name.
It’s always a fine line to figure out what details of a horrific case should be included to avoid sanitizing a story versus what to leave out to avoid sensationalizing one. I try to think about the people who were most involved at the time—especially family members of the victims—and write with them in mind, even if a case is centuries old.
I don’t want to sugarcoat anything, but I also don’t see any point in dwelling on the most disturbing details any longer than necessary to tell the story accurately. I’m routinely asked about an uptick in popularity when it comes to true crime, but the truth is that humans have been fascinated with the evil things we’re capable of doing to each other since we first started swapping stories. What does change over time, though, are the types of crimes we’re fascinated by in a given era.
We seem drawn to tales about the kinds of crimes we feel particularly vulnerable to. That’s why delving into the historical period of a crime makes it that much more fascinating. It isn’t just about the awful thing that was done; it’s also about what was happening in the world at that time to make that awful thing resonate so much.
Mandy Matney’s Murdaugh Murders Podcast follows the Alex Murdaugh case, later the subject of a Netflix docuseries. Matney continues her reporting on the Murdaugh family in Blood on Their Hands (Morrow, Nov.).
Old-school journalism rules say you should never make yourself a part of the story: stay objective; don’t get emotionally invested. But over my four years and counting investigating the Murdaughs, I found those mandates impossible to abide by.
After connecting with the victims at the center of the story, I wanted to do everything in my power to help bring them justice, even if that meant my work-life boundaries disappeared. I truly believe that it took that kind of intense dedication—from myself and so many others—to get to the kind of systemic change we’re now starting to see.
As I write about in Blood on Their Hands, covering crime can be a double-edged sword. On one side, bringing attention to overlooked victims and cases can help reopen investigations and uncover new information that leads to positive change. On the other, media attention can retraumatize victims and become overwhelming and disturbing. Finding the right balance is an ongoing process.
Laurah Norton is the creator and host of The Fall Line, a podcast focused on cold cases in the Southeast. In Lay Them to Rest (Hachette, Oct.), she explores forensic science throughout history and today.
If we’re covering an unidentified person—a Doe victim—those cases rarely get media attention, because they’re difficult to write about. Generally, younger victims get more coverage; so do white victims and wealthier victims. Women get more coverage than men. Heterosexual victims get more coverage, housed victims get more coverage, the list goes on. There are exceptions, but there’s also a pattern.
The disparity has improved some in recent years—I think social media has had a major impact there, because a story can go viral without mainstream journalism—but families still struggle to get eyes on a case, especially if it’s cold.
It’s vital to build narratives to which listeners and readers can connect, because then they’ll share the story, and a case may be solved. To do that, you concentrate on the human being at the center, not the graphic details of the crime. Readers and listeners are beginning to expect the human element at the forefront.