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To Tell or Not To Tell - why it’s important journalists investigate true crime

Image: ABC , Unravel podcast

The 64th Walkley Awards will be held tomorrow night at the ICC Ballroom in Sydney. Amongst the finalists are stories such as the uncovering of George Pell and systemic abuse in the Catholic Church, the Lawyer X Scandal and many other stories that rocked the nation in 2019. Also included is the ABC’s second season of the true crime podcast Unravel, titled Barrenjoey Road and hosted by investigative journalist Ruby Jones.

Unless you’ve been living under a social media rock, it should come as no surprise that there has been an increase in the number of listeners tuning in to true crime podcasts. In Australia alone, there was a 14% increase of true crime podcast listeners from 2017 to 2018.

Regardless of the platform, a revival of interest in true crime has appeared around the world, sparking many to debate the true reasons for producing these morbidly themed podcasts.

Creators of the popular true crime podcast S-Town were sued last year when the Estate of John B McLemore claimed no consent was given to release certain details about his personal life during the show.

When cases like this come into the limelight, it can be construed by the public that the only reason for investigating and creating these podcasts or documentaries is for shock value and listener engagement, contributing to the financial gain of the creators.

However, not all podcast creators are in it for the glory and monetary profit. These creators want to get the truth, spread awareness and maybe even help catch a bad guy; and they’re willing to risk harm to their own mental health in the process.

“It’s really hard. It’s really difficult.” – Ruby Jones

Last year, the ABC launched the podcast Unravel, which took its listeners to Barrenjoey Road in their second season. The story explores the disappearance of Trudi Adams, an 18 year old woman from Sydney’s Northern Beaches who went missing after a night at the local surf club in 1978, never to be seen again.

“We weren’t just doing a quick ‘in and out’ to get the story out there, we were actually dedicating a lot of time to investigative work.”

During the course of the investigation, which spanned over eight months, Ms Jones uncovered a story that went even darker than she ever expected. Tales of women being abducted and brutally raped floated to the surface and Ms Jones and the Unravel team found themselves amongst not only a possible murder, but a case of multiple rapes, botched police investigations and, most significantly, people who had been wounded by many traumatic events.

“It is really difficult sometimes spending so long on a case and getting to know people who are in quite a lot of pain.”

In the podcast, Ms Jones interviews two of Trudi’s friends from her high school days.

Although they are featured in the first episode, Ms Jones revealed they were actually one of the last interviews she did. They decided to be interviewed, she said, “because they could see how much investment and time and resources we were putting into the case”.

Not only was delving back into this story difficult for Trudi’s loved ones, it was also not easy for Ms Jones. “You do have to be careful,” she said about dealing with your own mental health as a journalist.

“It was more difficult than I knew it was going to be because I never spent a year on something like that before.”

But, having a team of people around her was imperative to ensure her mental health stayed strong throughout the investigation. “The key is that you’re in a team, so it’s not you just dealing with it on your own without any support.”

For any budding journalists out there, who are concerned by the trauma they may face in their careers, consider the support around you. Ms Jones had the support and mentorship of fellow ABC journalist and co-creator of the podcast Neil Mercer, as well as other co-workers at the ABC.

“You do have to be careful,'' she warned.

Image: ABC, Trace podcast

“Be a story-teller, not a story-taker.” – Rachael Brown

For journalists, especially those investigating cold cases, these should be words to work and live by. Words that Rachael Brown, host of ABC’s Trace podcast, continues to use to promote investigating cases ethically.

The stand-alone season delves into the unsolved murder of mother-of-two Maria James, who was stabbed to death in her Melbourne bookshop in June 1980.

Trace is told mainly from the perspective of Maria James’ two sons, Mark and Adam.

“This is not my story, it belongs to the James brothers, and I helped them tell it in a way that would best do justice to their mother.”

Similarly to Barrenjoey Road, Ms Brown uncovered a story that went far deeper and darker than the initial murder of Maria James. During the investigation, Adam James who lives with cerebral palsy and Tourette’s revealed he had been sexually abused by their priest.

“Interviewing Adam about his sexual abuse was one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done. I first checked with him, his brother Mark and his carers that this was indeed something he definitely wanted to do, and thought would be healthy for him. I also gave him all the time he needed to tell his story, his way.”

Despite how difficult it was for Ms Jones and Ms Brown to investigate and interview traumatised victims, their passion for uncovering the truth and helping those involved was incredibly important.

“You do it for the people who want to know what happened,” Ms Jones said.

“True crime stories have to be compelling, not entertaining” – Rachael Brown

Many journalists are aware of and practice their craft following the code of ethics set out by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). The MEAA website states:

“Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists search, disclose, record, question, entertain, comment and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable.”

Ms Jones and Ms Brown both state the importance of investigating these cases while still maintaining their ethical obligations as journalists.

Ms Jones said, “we never delude ourselves that we can make a huge difference”.

And Ms Brown stated that podcasters, authors and documentary makers “should not use families’ trauma, simply for audience titillation. The crime-as-entertainment slippery slope should be avoided”.

True crime podcasts such as Unravel and Trace have not been made for the popularity or the ratings; not to glorify horrific crimes and turn them into a spectatorship. They are not a campfire story, told at the expense of the people involved.

They are made to tell the truth, to give a voice to those who have been silenced, to convince those in powerful positions to take action, and to spread hope for those who have all but given up.

The Walkley Award winners will be announced this Thursday, November 28th.

If you or a loved one has been affected by the content of this article, you can seek help from Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.


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