Crime & Courts

True Crime Truth

“Our culture has substituted detachment from objectivity with detachment from reality …”

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As the reporter who first broke the double homicide at the heart of the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga – and who published the first report on the apparent suicide of Mica Miller last week – I know a thing or two about covering true crime sagas.

I also know a little bit about watching them spiral out of control within our increasingly unruly, uncouth and unhinged marketplace of “ideas.” When it comes to true crime fandom, the quest for truth, justice and accountability quickly devolves into factional, vitriolic bloodsport – with thumb-happy “detectives,” gossip “vloggers” and self-styled “journalists” reveling in the cyber-sensationalized gore of disinformation and demonization.

Truth becomes subservient to followers. Justice becomes a hashtag. Accountability becomes a popularity contest.

It’s not a whodunit … or, God forbid, anything about those who were victimized … but rather ‘how does my hair look?’ ‘How many followers can I get talking about it?’ And, ‘how can I shame, discredit and annihilate anyone who challenges me?’

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The wholesale untethering from objectivity we see in these cases is understandable – and, in fairness, it’s not always as malevolent as it may seem. After all, the lynchpin of the true crime genre is that the world needs heroes and villains. We need mystery. We need drama. We need titillation. We need substance and significance. We need emotional connections. We need to be shocked, appalled, obsessed, entertained … distracted.

Synaptic stimulations aside, we also need to be affirmed … to be fundamentally reminded that on our very worst day we could never be as bad as the evil, insane people we are feverishly texting or tweeting about.

That is why true crime sells. Because for as long as we are engaged in it, all of us – myself included – get to pretend we’re better than we really are. We get to be validated.

On some level, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that …

Lately, though, our culture has substituted detachment from objectivity with detachment from reality. We become so invested in these stories – our need for validation becomes so all-consuming – that we lose all sense of perspective and propriety. Stories becomes less about facts, evidence, testimony and truth and more about feelings – and teams – and, as mentioned, about obtaining affirmation vis-à-vis our role in the process.

We become invested, and when we become invested – we become protective of certain outcomes. Our preferred outcomes, to be precise.

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Sponsored by BAMBERG LEGAL, our Unsolved Carolinas series shines a spotlight on cases that have fallen off the front pages in the hopes of finding answers – and justice – for victims.

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And what of those who disagree with us? Or prove us wrong? Well, they become every bit as contemptible and villainous as the depraved characters at the center of these stories.

It’s a zero sum game: Anyone who doesn’t adhere to our conception of a certain case must be shamed into oblivion. Canceled. Destroyed.

That’s all well and good for true crime fandom … in fact, I would argue the marketplace of ideas actually benefits from the hyper-scrutinizing this subculture provides. But there’s a fundamental lack of faith in the ability of the truth to “out itself.” Which is where things get ugly.

As hard as it may be to fathom – and as uncomfortable as it can be at times – truth was actually made to thrive in just such a cacophony. The noisy, increasingly toxic arena in which these stories are bandied about is, on some level, necessary. And while it is not journalism, it does inform journalism on the front end – and on the back it it holds journalists (and investigators, prosecutors and judges) accountable.

There’s a caveat to that, though. None of us participating in this arena have a monopoly on truth.

We will never have all of the answers. We will never get it completely right. And we should never assume that those who disagree with our interpretations are somehow less entitled to their beliefs than we are to ours. Or that they should be silenced. Every interaction ought to be an opportunity to learn more about a story – to become better informed and, in turn, to better inform others.

That is what participation in the marketplace of ideas ought to be … and that is our goal in every story we cover.

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RELATED | MICA MILLER’S DEATH RULED A SUICIDE

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My media outlet is certainly not perfect. We’ve made honest mistakes in the past. “To err is human,” English poet Alexander Pope once wrote.

But the flip side of that wisdom is also worth recalling: “To forgive is divine.”

That is something I’ve struggled with at times, but it becomes much easier when you decide to truly value yourself. Think of it like this: You may be worth someone launching a vendetta … but is anyone worth you launching one?

If you truly value yourself, the answer to that question will always be “no.”

And that’s especially true if the drama doesn’t even directly involve you.

Of course there’s another famous quote associated with the inevitability of human error …

“Errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum,” Seneca the Younger once said. 

Translated, “to err is human … but to persist in erring is diabolical.”

The takeaway? We must remain open to admitting our faults … and, more importantly, open to having our minds changed. In other words, we must follow these stories wherever they go – even if that means being wrong. And admitting being wrong.

Some of you reading this column may interpret it as a critique of the initial social media treatment of Myrtle Beach, S.C. pastor John-Paul Miller – or perhaps even some sort of mea culpa regarding our outlet’s coverage of the saga enveloping him. Rest assured it is not. Miller is absolutely deserving of additional investigative scrutiny as it relates to the circumstances which led to his wife’s death. In fact, as this piece was going to press, our research director Jenn Wood penned an in-depth article providing precisely such scrutiny – which we will continue to vigorously apply to all of the dramatis personae in this story.

This column is not about any one case, rather it is about all of us becoming better participants in the search for truth – a process which begins by keeping an open mind about the cases we follow and our fellow participants in the marketplace of ideas.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

(Travis Bell Photography)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and eight children.

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1 comment

tamara rhodes Top fan May 9, 2024 at 6:51 pm

This may just be he best column you have ever penned … or typed. Well done.

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