Book Review: ‘Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era,’ by Tanya Horeck

I want to point to a fascinating and thoroughly researched study of true crime media. Tanya Horeck’s Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era (2019) takes a media studies approach to examining the current trends in popular digital media platforms that use the true crime genre as a framing or delivery device for . . . what exactly? That is part of her question.

Book cover for

What exactly do podcasts like Serial or documentary miniseries like The Jinx or Making a Murderer deliver or produce?

Horeck argues that while these true crime representations seem to package “justice on demand,” or even a sense that collective agency can influence the outcome of social or legal justice, the primary product is the same as its primary mode: affective engagement.

“As my analysis of true crime entertainment will demonstrate, in a networked digital era, what is most significant is not the content of true crime per se but the specific media formats and platforms through which we are invited to affectively engage with it” (8).

It’s almost as if we’re caught in a terrible late stage capitalism loop in which the technology innovations demand that we serve them with our affect, and our money, rather than the other way around: that technology could be used to serve us something we need to live.

In other words, Horeck argues that the current digital economy of true crime media is about cultivating and harnessing an audience’s affective attachment to a platform rather than stimulating authentic social change. But the rhetorical arguments within these true crime narratives, and in the marketing of these programs to viewers, would make us believe otherwise.

Horeck begins her introduction with a reference to the iconic My Favorite Murder podcast from co-hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark to illustrate the one-two punch of this digitally-driven affective economy: on one hand, MFM establishes its credibility in terms of social anxiety about crime (routed in whiteness and the myth of the white woman as victim); and, at the same time, Karen and Georgia’s spectrum of disgust and humor establishes an emotional bond with their audience — a bond which relies on their audience feeling like them, not just with them.

“It is the friendly, conversational, and emotional responses of Karen and Georgia to the gruesome stories of murder they recount that are most relatable for audiences in a twenty-first-century media culture that revolves around the sharing of affective reactions and judgements” (2-3).

Importantly, Horeck grounds her analysis in

“the notion of ‘networked affect,’ which, as Paasonen, Ken Hillis, and Michael Petit explain, refers to the connections and attachments forged through our affective encounters with a range of cultural objects and platforms . . .. In this account, affects are generated and mobilized within networks and cannot be attributable to the agency of individual actors” (3).

The book also considers the interplay of internet “sleuthing” — via search engines, social media “stalking,” and other internet-enabled data mining and information-gathering — along with gamification and crowdsourcing incentives in the true crime media mix. These phenomena bring new exchange potential to the traditional sense of “armchair detectives” which has long been part of the crime narrative economy:

“If armchair detection has long been a central part of the appeal of true crime, a genre that has its roots in the nineteenth century and even earlier, then the internet has thoroughly rebooted the notion of audiences’ interactive engagement with crime for the contemporary era. One of the central arguments of this book is that true crime thrives and proliferates across the digital interfaces and platforms of Web 2.0 because of how it invigorates a notion of “armchair detection.” It is not just that the internet rapidly spreads true crime stories but that true crime as a genre lends itself to the attention economies of 24/7 “platform capitalism” (Srnicek 2016) and its solicitation of “active” user or viewer engagement through participatory media technologies.” (7).

The study asks other important questions about the intersection of crime discourse and new media engagement, too, including how the “post-truth” era might impact expectations for justice and consensus around legal and social concepts such as “guilty” or “victim”:

“In persuading viewers to make judgments based on strong emotional reactions and responses generated from within the texts themselves, recent true crime texts appear to enact certain principles of a post-truth world in which “opinions and feelings” play a key role in “shaping what we think of as facts and truth” (McIntyre 2018, 172). While I want to keep a space open for thinking about ways in which digital true crime might also offer up the possibility for a more critically resistant engagement, this book explores the ways in which true crime’s rhetorical modes of audience address often work to harness affective responses to dubious ideological and political ends” (10).

Overall, Horeck understands that the true crime genre and digital culture are reciprocal, and it may be hard to pinpoint a cause-effect relationship. Rather:

“Digital culture has revitalized true crime just as true crime has helped to inform and shape the new modes of storytelling practices that have come to characterize the digital era” (11).

The study has four chapters, each looking at different aspects of the digital landscape when it comes to the networked true crime era.  Chapter One looks closely at the impact of the 2008 “low-budget” documentary Dear Zachary as a kind of starting point for examining the “cultural shift in the reception of true crime and documentary as intersecting media formats” (29-30).

The second chapter covers a surprising topic: the circulation of CCTV footage of assaults involving celebrities. Horeck argues that “These elevator videos are not true crime texts,” but

“They are nonetheless significant as striking case studies of the ways in which closed-circuit television videos now circulate across networked spaces and link to the true crime genre through their solicitation of a participatory spectatorship that invites viewer judgment. CCTV videos, along with the social media systems that track our data, are an intrinsic part of wider digital surveillance culture and regimes” (30-1).

Chapter 3 takes another interesting subject for its case: media trailers for true crime documentaries:

“I turn my attention to short-form true crime in the shape of the one-to-three-minute trailers that promote true crime documentaries and docuseries in online spaces. More specifically, my focus is on the Netflix trailers for Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox, both of which, I argue, demand to be seen as blockbuster texts in their own right” (31).

I spent more time engaging with the fourth chapter, “Over Her Dead Body: Binge-Watching Long-Form True Crime,” because I was interested in the disappearing dead woman at the center of these narrative re-tellings. Horeck looks at three long-form docu-series: the podcast Serial (2014), the HBO mini-series The Jinx (2015), and Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015).

Horeck explains:

“I argue that these texts generate affective judgment in highly predetermined ways, which are attached to the dynamics of binging. What is of further concern here is the way in which these binge-worthy true crime serials simultaneously deploy— and then elide— the dead female body in the service of stringing out their long-form narratives. I argue that the extended structure of these long-form serials, designed for binge-­ watching, make visible the problematic raced and gendered mechanics of the true crime format” (33).

So, she argues that dead women are narrative hooks for a specific engagement strategy that entices audiences and keeps them returning to the media platform. It is important that the idea of a dead woman attracts the true crime audience, and that this “idea” is shaped by cultural tropes about gender, race, and sexuality. These series make use of those tropes in a specific way, not to explore or achieve “justice” but to appeal to specific audiences.

The questions that arise in Horeck’s chapters about manufacturing and exploiting affective attachments, the white gaze, and the “problematic raced and gendered mechanics of the true crime format,” are responded to in the book’s Afterword where Horeck considers some feminist possibilities of the true crime genre and its digital platforms:

“In the Afterword, Feminist True Crime, I therefore reflect on the #metoo, post-Weinstein era and some of the new possibilities that digital media networks open up for a feminist interrogation of rape culture. While the internet has created devastating new forms of violence and image-based sexual abuse, as well as serving as a breeding ground for men’s rights activists (MRAs) (Ging 2017) and “toxic technocultures” (Massanari 2017), it has also simultaneously enabled collective feminist organization and resistance against violent crimes and the misogynistic cultures that fuel them. With reference to hashtag feminist activism, as well as to recent attempts to deploy new media formats for a feminist repurposing of rape narratives, I conclude this book with a discussion of the critical, feminist potential of true crime. My case studies in this afterword are the Netflix American true crime series The Keepers (2017) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation podcast series Missing and Murdered (2016–) , both of which, I argue, make significant efforts to stay focused on the victims and to open outward to the social contexts of crime” (33).

Horeck’s examination explores the ideological — and therefore hidden — work of true crime discourses in our current digital landscape that serves corporate data-mining and profit-growing agendas rather than a social agenda for justice by trading on long-held cultural myths that reinforce social inequality.

But she ends with an analysis based not only in critical reflection but hope for productive use of these very same digital platforms and narrative genres to advocate for marginalized voices and stories, and to transform collective engagement.

[Note: I’ve linked to the book through my Bookshop.org affiliate link, which means I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through the link. Thank you for supporting this blog and public humanities projects!]

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