The Mighty Logo

If You're Interested in Documentaries and True Crime Like I Am, Here's How to Avoid Exploitative and 'Trauma Porn' Content

The concept of trauma porn first came onto my radar about three months ago when I was working on an article about the documentary “The Deep End,” an exposé about alleged cult leader Teal Swan. In the research process for that article, I stumbled upon a podcast entitled “A Little Bit Culty” hosted by Sarah Edmonson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, whistleblowers of the now infamous Nxivm cult and stars of the critically-acclaimed HBO documentary “The Vow.” In one of their discussions, they brought up their concerns with the proliferation of trauma porn and how those who are avid consumers of true crime, cults, or other media focusing upon the misfortune of others should be mindful of how and what they choose to watch or listen to.

Being an avid fan of all things true crime, cult, and other non-fiction, my internal alarm bells sounded upon hearing this, so I wanted to take a deep dive into what trauma porn is and how I could be a more responsible consumer of this type of media. As I’ve spent time discovering the nuances of this topic, the subject has become even more relevant with the most recent episode of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” which highlights the dangers of trauma porn addiction both for the consumer and the victim of the story being told.

So what is trauma porn?

While an exact definition is hard to come by, the basic premise is that this is a type of media that exploits the suffering of others for entertainment and profit with zero regard for the victims’ pain and suffering. The media itself often targets those within marginalized communities, particularly those who are non-white, female, members of the LGBTQ+ community, members of the disability community, or are from socio-economically repressed communities. Often their stories are told nonconsensually or they are misled as to the purpose and context of telling their stories. This is an industry that appears to be growing by leaps and bounds and is becoming particularly problematic with the proliferation of social media platforms encouraging video content like Tik Tok.

What drives our insatiable appetite for this kind of media, and how do we know if we are addicted?

Some degree of curiosity about these types of stories is normal. The whole adage of not being able to take your eyes off of a train wreck comes to mind. But it goes beyond that, particularly for women, who represent a disproportionately high percentage of the population consuming this type of media. For many, including myself, there’s a sense of empowerment that comes from watching these stories or hearing about them. When a criminal is convicted, it provides a cathartic sense of justice that I may not have been able to attain in my own life. When survivors tell their stories, it feels like I’m arming myself with the knowledge and understanding of what to avoid or how to protect myself from becoming a victim.

However, when this becomes the only material you consume and it begins to get in the way of living your own life, that can be a red flag. Just like with anything, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Constant exposure to violence, interpersonal conflict, power dynamic abuses, and catastrophes can cause increased anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness, and distrust in others. And this is particularly true for survivors of similar traumas, which is why so many of these types of shows begin and end with trigger warnings and resources for seeking out help.

This leads me back to the subject of how to consume this kind of media responsibly, not just for yourself, but more importantly with mindfulness and while avoiding exploiting the trauma of others.

1. Avoid highly edited content with a clear bias or for the sake of shock value.

The best example I can give for this is reality television. There’s nothing “real” about it. Directors make very deliberate choices to cultivate narratives that tell the most intriguing story, often misrepresenting individuals and distorting facts. This can occur in documentaries as well — “Tiger King” and “Bad Vegan” come to mind. I’m embarrassed that I watched them and if I’m honest, I felt kind of dirty doing so. That should have been a clue that something was wrong and I should have turned them off.

2. Interviews should not only offer insight into both sides of a story, but they should also be conducted in a trauma-informed way.

What exactly do I mean by this? First off, those asking the questions should be checking in with the interviewee to make sure they are still operating within their conscious ability to consent to telling their story. If an individual declines to respond or requests the cameras be turned off, their request should be acknowledged and respected, particularly when it involves someone detailing abuse or trauma of any kind. Interviewees should feel empowered and like they are participating because they want to educate or help others by sharing what happened to them.

The other aspect of this is to curate questions that don’t pigeonhole the interviewee into a one-sided narrative. For example, in “The Vow,” ex-members of the Nxivm cult were encouraged to not just divulge the crimes perpetrated against them, but to also explore how they ended up joining the organization to begin with. So often victims of cults are seen as weak, “stupid,” or vulnerable when often they are quite highly educated, capable people who were simply looking to belong somewhere or to further their personal growth. It is myopic and reductionistic to frame these individuals as passive victims and it doesn’t achieve what I think the goal of good documentary storytelling can encapsulate, which is to show that nobody is immune to being coerced into potentially dangerous situations. Ultimately these should be cautionary tales that evoke what might be good or appealing at first but can turn dangerous when being controlled by a sociopathic individual.

3. Avoid media that in any way dehumanizes others.

This is particularly important in stories about individuals within the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. Showing how individuals have suffered without any kind of call to action or meaningful gesture toward seeking accountability or addressing systemic abuse simply serves to perpetuate their dehumanization by disseminating the material. It’s triggering and an act of aggression toward these individuals.

And if the media fails to include individuals from within a marginalized community capable of speaking their own truth, these pieces become more performative than restorative. As Brené Brown says, “Empathy requires believing people. The quickest path to an empathic miss is to evaluate + judge what people are sharing through the lens of our lived experiences vs. listening and believing.” Witnessing the trauma of others without believing them and listening to how it affected them is the ultimate form of trauma porn.

We live in a society with a 24/7 media cycle that thrives off of the ability to capture an audience’s attention continuously. The best way to do this is to sensationalize stories and manufacture narratives that can be deceitful and deleterious. In a way, we have become desensitized to the scope and depth of human suffering because of the nonstop bombardment of images and sound bytes of trauma being hurled at us like grenades.

In recognizing the degree to which I have been a part of the problem, I have made a concerted effort to be far more mindful and discerning of the media I choose to consume. While I still enjoy watching a good true crime series or cult documentary, I can rather quickly ascertain the degree to which a particular program falls into the category of trauma porn and will immediately stop watching. It’s only by watching selectively that media production companies will begin to be more cognizant of their accountability in cultivating respectful, informative programming.

Getty image by Jayson Photography.

Conversations 3