Meet the true crime podcaster making your guilty pleasure more ethical

Technology 16-10-2021 Mashable 35

Grab your magnifying glass and get ready to investigate as Mashable uncovers Big/Little Mysteries.


True crime is one of the most popular genres ever. It's also going through a huge identity crisis.

In podcasting especially, the genre is almost exclusively made by women, for women (mostly). Many wildly popular true crime shows even claim to have lofty goals, of preparing folks so they don't become the next victim or of confronting the gender-based traumas of misogynistic violence.

But large swaths of the true crime community ignore the plethora of other systemic issues plaguing America's criminal justice system, namely when it's related to race. The stench of copaganda is all over this all-too-white phenomenon, as podcast hosts simultaneously try to camouflage victim exploitation as something honorable.

With each passing year — especially since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 — the uglier parts of true crime have become harder to ignore. Enter Celisia Stanton: Wedding photographer, high school debate coach, prison abolitionist, and first-time podcaster.

Truer Crime, which Stanton launched in May, tackles the laundry list of ethical critiques lobbed at the genre — and then some. It covers some of the classic, popular true crime stories, like that of Darlie Routier (the mother convicted of murdering her two sons) and the Jonestown Massacre (with over 900 members of a predominantly Black civil rights group forced to poison themselves by their white leader Jim Jones). But you've never heard them told like this before. On top of that, the podcast even has a TikTok page that's helping to make TrueCrimeTok a less toxic, white-focused space.

In a genre with far too many false narratives, Stanton stands out by revealing the truth of crime in America and getting at the heart of those most victimized by systems that exacerbate the violence.

Editor's Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Mashable: What inspired you to start making Truer Crime?

Celisia Stanton: A few things led me to become a podcaster, or more specifically a true crime podcaster.

One thing was living in Minneapolis. I don't live very far at all from where George Floyd was murdered. The uprisings over the summer of 2020 were obviously impactful to everyone globally, but it especially impacted the local community.

As a full-time wedding photographer, my social media presence was always a big part of the job. I was always told that, as an entrepreneur, you need to keep business and politics very separate. You don't want to run off potential clients and stakes are high when you don't have a guaranteed, regular paycheck.

But I always felt like my whole life was political — as a Black woman, raised by gay parents, living in the Midwest. And I'm a high school debate coach. So everybody who knows me in regular life knows I'm outspoken about my strongly held beliefs on social issues. There was this disconnect between my professional, sanitized persona on social media, and who I am in my personal interactions.

@truercrimepod

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So when George Floyd was murdered, it was an opportunity to put my views out there publicly. A few of my posts online went viral at the time. I started gaining a following, going from about a thousand followers on Instagram to 40,000 in the span of a few months. It was an, uh, interesting situation that happened to multiple people then, when all eyes were on listening to Black folks. There's a lot to say about that moment of interest. But the overwhelmingly positive response to sharing my thoughts and views disproved this idea of not being able to talk about anything publicly.

Another big thing was that after the murder of George Floyd, during the pandemic in the fall of 2020, I was the victim of fraud from a financial adviser who was a Black man I really trusted and thought shared my values. I ended up talking to the FBI and discovered he'd defrauded about 25 clients of millions of dollars for frivolous things like a second million-dollar home, cruises, fancy jewelry. Black men aren't the typical perpetrators of financial crimes at all. So it was really life-altering. People don't think about financial crimes too significantly. We tend to focus on violent crimes, which are obviously awful. But this person stole multiple people's retirement savings. Financial crimes impact people in very tangible, long-term ways.

In the aftermath, I got pretty depressed. Then it was the holiday season, when no one's getting married in Minnesota, so I wasn't able to work. So I started filling that time with listening to lots of true crime while doing puzzles.

Out of all that — the mass consumption of George Floyd's murder, and my own experience as a crime victim — came the idea for my podcast I'd later start Truer Crime.

Mashable: Before making Truer Crime, what was your relationship to the true crime podcast phenomenon? Were you listening to the Crime Junkies and My Favorite Murders of the world? Or was that not your bag?

C.S: No, I definitely was.

Serial was the first podcast that got me into podcasts, which is true for a lot of people. My friend and I re-listened to the whole thing on a trip just so we could talk about it. I was interested in them as a social phenomenon. Then we listened to a bunch of My Favorite Murder. But I never consumed quite as much as I did during that pandemic holiday. It was basically all day.

Mashable: In general, what were some of your biggest criticisms of the typical approach to true crime? Like, what were its biggest harms that you saw as unethical practices?

It was wild because I'd just continue to pause whatever I was listening to and go off on my boyfriend about all my issues with it—and that ended up pushing me to create Truer Crime. After one of these rants, he was like, “Why don't you make a podcast that doesn't do all that?”

One of my main issues was that, as a crime victim who went through the criminal legal system, I had this experience that gave me a critical perspective that true crime podcasts were just missing.

So much true crime pretends to be victim-centered when it isn't. A lot of people seem to think that if you talk about how bad the perpetrator was and talk about how great the victim was and why they didn't deserve it, then it's victim-centered.

But it's also victim-centered to talk about the root causes of why and how these crimes occur, so you can help prevent this sort of thing from happening to future victims. In a real way, not in the way of scaring everybody about crimes that don't actually happen a lot. That's very reactive, and that reactivity is at the root of not only the problem with true crime media, but the criminal legal system itself.

The reason why I call it the criminal legal system is because, in the U.S., it's not actually about obtaining justice.

Then there's some true crime media that is just straight-up disrespectful. In general, true crime media produced by men felt way worse at making jokes — about the victim, even. In general, the blend of comedy in true crime is weird to me.

At the end of the day, everybody likes things that are problematic. It is what it is. I'm not saying you have to be ethically pure. But when we've used TikTok to promote the show and our critiques of true crime, it turned out a lot of people share them. But the comedy one gets pushback with people saying, "I like comedy with true crime because it helps take some of the horror away from it. It's easier for me to hear it, I'd be too uncomfortable otherwise." But for me, it's just like, well, yeah. It's supposed to be uncomfortable. These are people's real-life traumas.

One person commented about how a lot of people use humor as a coping mechanism, like when folks of color use side chatter and make jokes during a horror movie to feel better about the uncomfortable, horrific things on-screen — specifically if it has to do with race. But that's a fictional movie. It's also one thing to use humor to deal with your own trauma. I don't understand it as a coping mechanism for some stranger's trauma because you don't have to listen to true crime podcasts. You could cope by disengaging from it entirely.

Then there's that over fixation on crimes that are the least likely to happen.

Being the victim of a crime in general, especially of extremely violent crimes like the murders often covered by true crime media, is pretty rare. There are subsets of the population who are more likely to be victims of those violent crimes. But they're disproportionately Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other folks of color. Yet the primary focus of true crime media is white women.

If you listen to a lot of true crime, you start to believe in this distorted worldview that's not actually the reality. You start to feel like certain people are more likely to be criminals, and certain people are more likely to be victims, and it's not the truth.

The last major issue I had was how nobody ever talked about systems. The stories always seemed to end with, "Then they found the bad guy," or "we didn't find the bad guy, so if you know anything please contact agencies like the police or FBI or whatever so we can serve justice." Which is really wild to me.

"Never was there discussion about the ways in which the systems of society create the conditions for these crimes to happen."

If somebody is murdered, finding that perpetrator can sometimes bring the family peace. But I don't know that justice or relief can ever be given to relatives or close friends of the victim of something as violent as murder. There's so many other things at play there that we could address but we obsess over punishing the "bad guy." Never was there discussion about the ways in which the systems of society create the conditions for these crimes to happen, or the ways in which punishment of the perpetrators doesn't seem to prevent these events from happening over and over again.

Take policing. If you listen to any true crime podcast, every episode is like, "Oh well just by chance the police couldn't help — Isn't that so wild?" or "They botched this — isn't that messed up?" At what point does it stop becoming surprising every time and instead become a pattern of behavior actually embedded into the system? Is there something really wrong here that's worth interrogating more?

But it's always, "At the end of the day, even though the cops flubbed this one yet again, hopefully there's some good Samaritans out there or some good cops that'll save the day next time." Which just feels so naive — especially when it happens practically every other episode.

Mashable: I call it the girlboss-ification of true crime. It might be slightly better when women tell the narrative, but it's mostly white women like you said. As a white woman who isn't vulnerable to the injustices of America's legal system, even I feel a bit triggered by those calls to action. I can't imagine what someone who's vulnerable to police brutality and wrongful conviction feels when the hosts of Crime Junkie galvanize their Season of Justice charity for more genetic testing to help solve cold cases. Especially after listening to your episode that got into the flaws of genetic and DNA evidence. How is Truer Crime course-correcting away from that white woman #girlboss approach to the genre?

C.S.: Yeah the Season of Justice stuff is really vile to me, just knowing more about how DNA evidence is misused after researching the Josiah Sutton case.

So much of the problem with that type of true crime comes back to exploitation. That's a big thing for me and the show.

With the girlboss-ification that you're talking about: So often, they're searching for a purpose because they don't want to be "canceled" or problematic. So they'll say stuff like, "We care about the victims, it's about putting their stories out there" or "it's about making sure the same doesn't happen to you." That's a little disingenuous to me.

You all have that same exact mission, but nothing changes. Meanwhile, people are just becoming more desensitized to true crime stories, not even seeing victims as real people. At what point can we admit that's not an actual justification for what you're doing? Because what you're creating is just pure entertainment. And it's monetized, obviously.

That's where the exploitation comes in.

Some victims and families might not be happy having their stories covered by these podcasts. Exposure is important for some folks and families, like in unsolved cases, or to have their family member remembered. But it's even sadder to think about how that's their only option. You either have it covered this way, or not covered at all.

It's a hard thing, including for me, to continuously navigate, to toe that line of exploitation. On some level, all media is entertainment. I'm not gonna deny that my podcast is a piece of entertainment. It's just facts. But how do you make it a net positive for the world, instead of harmful to victims, family members, all that?

You make the real person the center of the stories.

Our first episode on Darlie Routier is one of those very popular true crime cases covered by everyone. So I wanted the challenge of finding something unique to share about it. I was astonished — got really upset, even going through all of the evidence myself and reading what her and her family had to say. There's so much left out to craft her narrative in a way that maximizes entertainment value, to make it a whodunit mystery, good for theories on her guilt or innocence.

But Darlie Routier is currently on death row right now, and she and her entire family have been claiming her innocence for about 25 years. You need to be extremely desensitized to the fact that she's an actual person, that her family members are real people, to the fact that her living son is a real person, to instead only care about swapping theories.

As much as possible, I don't want the people in these cases to just become yet another character in a true crime story. People say all the time that they binged all our episodes. And, OK, that's how people consume content. I did the same thing — like a lot. A couple of the hundreds of episodes I listened to stuck with me, but most didn't because of how coldly it's covered and the way I was consuming it.

I want every episode of Truer Crime to feel impactful.

With Darlie, there was this 911 call she makes the night her two older sons were killed, and it's super famous — a lot of true crime media plays that public access audio to speculate on her tone, what she says wrong, what she should've said, why she's guilty. But when I listened, it just sounded like the most terrible moment in somebody's — in a whole family's life.

I went back and forth on whether using the audio was an invasion of privacy. Long story short, I put a small bit in because it's a big part of her story, and her family and supporters are still trying to recapture the narrative about it to show people the true emotion behind how she sounded. Framing it that way felt like a more positive impact.

Mashable: Another major question hanging over these issues around true crime media is: Why aren't George Floyd or Breonna Taylor covered?

C.S.: Those [stories] get labeled political, social justice, or historical. And that's only because of people's framing of what true crime is. Overwhelmingly, true crime is when a white, pretty blonde woman gets murdered by a stranger.

And people are nervous to cover them. If you've already attracted an established audience over the years that's pretty pro-law enforcement, maybe more conservative in their thinking, not just politically but generally — that's a big risk. Even if your audience is a mix of people, since I believe all different types of people consume true crime. But George Floyd or Breonna Taylor could still potentially alienate lots of customers.

It's weird because we're in this phase after the Minneapolis uprising where it's like, "Oh shoot we have to be 'woke.'" So people are toeing the line by covering cases about Black people, but never a case of someone being murdered by police or anything flagged as political. Others are just scared to talk about these issues, especially since white folks are overwhelmingly the true crime media creators. They fear saying the wrong thing, being critiqued.

When people are critical of the true crime genre, their conclusion is usually that it just shouldn't be consumed. But first off: People aren't going to stop. It's by far one of the most popular podcast genres, with new documentaries and specials on Netflix, Hulu, all the platforms literally every other day. People are fascinated by it. And there's real reasons why: These are important stories.

History gets this special classification as important, while true crime is treated as more frivolous. But they're so often the same. People criticized our Tulsa Race Massacre episode on Truer Crime for being history. But it's also a true crime story, of crimes committed against Black folks in Tulsa. So those true crime stories speak to vital issues within our society.

One of the things that the murder of George Floyd drove home is how stories are crucial to catalyzing movements that inspire change. What happened to George Floyd had happened many times before. Yet it was this particular instance, this sort of perfect sequence of events that led to a global uprising and movement.

If one event can spark that level of outrage, then that means telling stories about injustice is crucial. For me, that means there's a high obligation to create true crime media that has a real purpose.

Mashable: Would you ever cover George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?

C.S.: I would never say no. But with everything I cover on the show, I want to make sure I have a unique perspective to offer in the telling of that story. With both being so recent, I think I would need more time to reflect.

We are already planning for Season 2 and Season 3, though, with crimes that are related to George Floyd. Not to his murder, but to the events that transpired.

Mashable: True Crime — especially podcasts — are largely seen as this guilty pleasure. But what do you think the genre can contribute to conversations about justice?

C.S.: From the beginning, my vision was not to be the social justice podcast. I wanted to be a true crime podcast. That's why we call it Truer Crime, because it gets to the core of what I'm trying to do: I don't want to be outside of the genre. I want to shift the genre.

These stories aren't just extremely important. They also have mass appeal. Tons of people are listening to it, especially women and femme folks. So meet folks exactly where they're at, where they're listening — specifically those who love true crime podcasts. With Truer Crime, I of course want people who are social justice-oriented, who are leftists, activists, abolitionists to listen and like it. But I also wanted people who were also maybe liberals, maybe pretty apolitical, even folks who are a bit more conservative to find something in the show too.

"I don't want to be outside of the genre. I want to shift the genre."

I want to create a show that doesn't feel like it's lecturing people, telling them what they should believe. Instead, I meet them with a format they're already familiar with, where I can provide evidence for what I say and believe, and why I question. It's a way for people to more comfortably engage with the difficulties around justice, the legal system, crime, criminality — all that.

True crime stories are important because they reveal so much more than just what's directly related to the criminal legal system. Every facet of society impacts the ways we punish people, be it sexism, racism, homophobia, whatever — these systems of how we interact with each other feed into it.

I believe that, if you just add something extra to the food people already love, it'll makes those ideas a lot more consumable.

Mashable: I love how you have a section at the end of each episode with action items to combat the issues you've raised or support the victims. Why was that important for you?

C.S.: When I was writing the show, Tamir Rice's mom was in the news. She spoke out condemning activists she felt had used her son's story for their own benefit and platform, without engaging with her or supporting her family and their community. I found many of her points valid. Even if those activists didn't feel that's what they were doing, or had a different opinion, or there were nuances to each person she called out — the argument she made was important.

For me, it opened up this question about who owns these stories? If you are the victim or a close family or friend, obviously that story is very personal to you. You feel a connection, a claim, certain ownership over it. But the problem is that stories take on a life of their own. To use Breonna Taylor or George Floyd as an example — their stories are still their families. But with George Floyd especially, they now have zero control over how their loved one's story is now global. Obviously George Floyd as an individual, his personality, who he was — that all still belongs to them. But the story of what happened to him also came to mean something to a lot of other people too. So how do you connect that?

If I'm going to tell these true crime stories, then I'm essentially doing exactly what Tamir Rice's mom critiqued activists for — unless I take special steps to ensure I'm always centering those most directly affected. Given that I'm just one person, it's not always possible for me to get in contact with the victims or family members. But we try a lot. So at the end of each episode, when the listener feels emotionally connected to these individuals and what happened to them, to their community — how can we direct that energy in a way that actually helps them?

With the Jonestown episode, I found all this information on the People's Temple with survivors' contact information. When I reached out, I didn't ask them for an interview, because they'd made plenty of primary sources available to me already.

What I asked instead was: Where would you like us to direct support? They weren't interested in having a conversation, but they did appreciate being asked that. Sometimes, victims' families don't want resources directed to them. In the case of Jonestown, one survivor wanted to write a book and support for that. Another wanted people to donate to the memorial and Black Lives Matter because, ultimately, the People's Temple was a racial justice organization. That's what it meant to many of the folks that were in it.

Adding that piece became a critical part of the story creation process. I found that as I reached out to people to figure out ways to direct support, the story often shifted too.

Mashable: On that note, what's the best way people can support the podcast?

C.S.: We have to be able to to gain some support financially for the show because it's very expensive, takes a lot of labor, we're a really small team, and I still have a full-time job. Patreon is the number one way to support it financially, with $5 a month getting you different behind-the-scenes and bonus content, like the uncut interview with Carol Batie, the mother of Josiah Sutton.

But the biggest thing that can be done to support the show is to listen and to share it with friends and family.

There's no better platform for getting as much organic reach without needing to spend any money than TikTok. The increase we've had in listeners since making ours is huge. It more than doubled our listens in three weeks, even while we're offseason, not even producing episodes weekly. We had fewer listeners then than do now, which is wild.

But in order to be a show that actually does its mission of shifting the genre — we need so many more people listening.

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