Column: Idaho murders showcase the dangers of conflating true crime with entertainment

28-year-old criminology graduate student Bryan Kohberger appeared in court for the first time last week after being charged in late December with the murder of four University of Idaho students, granting closure to the victims’ families who must still be dealing with unimaginable grief as they piece together the tragic details of what happened to their children. Kohberger’s arrest also brought a sense of relief to a different crowd struck by the effects of the killings – the multiple individuals accused of murder by true crime content creators on TikTok.

The Nov. 13 murder of Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Ethan Chapin, 20, shocked the nation and left millions with unanswered questions about why and how these senseless killings occurred. But instead of leaving the investigating to the real detectives assigned to this case, a slew of true crime content creators accused several innocent people of murder without any credible evidence whatsoever, gaining notoriety and followers in the process. Media does not exist in a vacuum – true crime content creators’ posts impact the real lives of the individuals involved in this horrific situation, and they need to learn how to act with sensitivity, not harassment, toward the victims and families involved.

Fellow Idaho student Jack Showalter, Goncalves’ ex-boyfriend Jack DuCoeur and University of Idaho history professor Rebecca Scofield have each been the target of endless online harassment and threats in the midst of this ongoing investigation, with some content creators persisting even after Kohberger was named a suspect and taken into custody. Scofield is even suing TikTok true crime blogger Ashley Guillard, who still claims that Scofield was involved in a relationship with Goncalves and murdered all four students.

If you find yourself asking why much of the social media coverage around the Idaho case resembles a TV show, it’s not a coincidence. The last decade has seen an insurmountable rise in true crime as an entertainment genre. Podcasts like “Crime Junkie” and “My Favorite Murder” have cult-like followings and cover everything from little-known unsolved cases to infamous murders, while controversial series like Netflix’s “Dahmer” have amassed billions of views. While there is nothing inherently wrong with being interested in true crime, the behavior of self-proclaimed internet sleuths in the true crime media sphere on TikTok demonstrates how our cultural obsession with true crime has gone too far.

The public’s unfathomably cruel response to 19-year-old Dylan Mortensen – one of the two surviving roommates in the off-campus home where Kernodle, Mogen and Goncalves also lived – has been most shocking. The chilling 19-page affidavit released this month describes how Mortensen came face to face with the murderer as he was exiting the home before locking herself in her room for hours fearing that he might return. He did. Kohberger’s cell phone pinged at the residence around 9 a.m. the next morning. Thousands of strangers on the internet have vilified Mortensen for her decision not to call 911 immediately and even suggested she has something to do with the murder of her best friends.

The reality is that no one commenting on Mortensen’s actions knows how they would have behaved in her situation. But we can assume that Mortensen acted in a state of shock, as most teenagers would, after realizing she was just seconds away from becoming a murder victim herself. To continue to torment a young woman who has just gone through an unimaginably horrific event instead of blaming the suspect in custody is unspeakably vile. This desensitization is the product of conflating true crime with entertainment.

The oversaturation of true crime in our media landscape – in shows, documentaries, podcasts and on TikTok – has resulted in a complete detachment of human empathy and a disconnect from the very real victims and family members at the center of these viral cases, blurring the line between entertainment and real life. When true crime commentators and internet sleuths begin to view the victims and near victims of this crime as characters in a TV show, they become desensitized enough to spread damaging rhetoric like the insults hurled at Mortensen.

But not every single true crime content creator who has posted videos about this case has acted with malice. The popular #idaho4 hashtag used on TikTok to spread news and updates about the case currently has 1.1 billion views, many of which are from videos in support of Mortensen and the wrongfully accused suspects. But the unsettling truth is that a considerable amount of people posting under the hashtag view this case as entertainment and a mystery to solve. While it is human nature to be curious and even fascinated by criminology, our wildest speculations about this case must end there – in private. Broadcasting bizarre theories on TikTok for the world to see only further traumatizes the family members involved.

If there is anything we can learn from these devastating murders of four bright, young people, it’s that there is no ethical way to create social media content theorizing and sleuthing this early into a developing case, especially one concerning homicide. These creators are capitalizing on a tragedy for views and internet fame, damaging their young and impressionable audiences who may genuinely want to learn about the facts of the case only to come away with conspiracies and misinformation.

In rapidly unfolding cases like the Idaho murders, we should leave the detective work to the detectives assigned to the case. Theorize, wonder and research privately instead of demonizing and defaming innocent individuals online. It’s time we come to a serious cultural reckoning about the dire effects of how we approach true crime. We need to draw the line between meaningful curiosity and mindless entertainment to avoid becoming desensitized to these nationally captivating cases.

Julia Koscelnik, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in journalism and mass communication, is the contributing opinions editor.

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