Comfort in the chaos: How Canadian true crime podcasts can help us connect
The best true crime centres empathy and ethical storytelling to help us make sense of terrible things
When the daily news cycle is filled with so much chaos, it might be hard to imagine true crime as a source of compassion and empathy for podcast listeners. But there's a growing number of podcasts whose entire purpose is to make sense of the terrible things that happen — and a number of those shows are Canadian.
As a genre, true crime taps into our fascination with real-life horror and mystery and gives us an outlet for our anxieties. But not all podcasts are created equal, and some rely so heavily on the gruesome details that they sacrifice ethical storytelling in the process. Audiences are responding more to podcasts that choose to focus instead on empathy and respect for victims, and Canadians are doing that well.
I hadn't realized that there was a cultural difference between our podcasts and others until I attended a panel called "Uncover with Missing & Murdered" at the 2019 Hot Docs Podcast Festival. Among the participants on the panel was Justin Ling, host of Uncover: The Village, who referenced Canadian true crime podcasts being grouped together as a genre. He was recalling a fireside chat called "Why are Canadians so good at investigative true crime?" at the 2019 Podcast Movement Festival. Ling had been surprised to realize for the first time that there was something distinctive in the storytelling and reporting of these podcasts — a difference focused on empathy and centring victims' stories.
The idea intrigued me as well and I wanted to explore what the possible factors could be and see if it was intentional or if Canadian podcasters, like myself, were shaped by our national identity. Was there something about our culture that drove this narrative style or was it merely out of a need to separate ourselves from our media-dominating neighbour?
Wanting to learn more, I spoke with Ling about what he meant. "I don't think we're unique; I don't think we're the only ones doing ethical true crime," he says. "I think we're maybe doing more of the high level stuff but I think a big chunk of that is CBC. Between Uncover and Missing & Murdered and a handful of others, I think Canada just has this skill set or desire to do true crime stories that is a little more thoughtful."
He also pointed to our current sociopolitical climate, specifically the ways that the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has opened the eyes of non-Indigenous people.
"We are still being inundated with documentary series or fictionalized series about Ted Bundy and the Zodiac Killer. At the same time, we're facing the uncomfortable cultural reality that our society has the disappearances and murders of thousands of women and girls and it just never got the same attention."
When making Uncover: The Village, Ling says that his team worked to make the podcast both entertaining and informative, and that their audience seemed to really respond to that.
"I think it was a really good proof positive that people consume this sort of salacious, over the top, fantastical true crime because there wasn't a better alternative, and given the option, I think people do prefer the smart thoughtful production as opposed to the salacious and gross style of 'reporting' that we've seen on other cases."
And it is something that true crime fans have been noticing. When I reached out to a Facebook group of true crime podcasts, many listeners responded that they did actively seek out Canadian true crime podcasts and they did notice a difference compared to their American counterparts.
"I especially find that Connie Walker [of Missing & Murdered] and [Kristi Lee] the host of Canadian True Crime [...] have an amazing way of telling the story of the events with dignity and acknowledgment of the pain suffered by the victims and families," says U.S.-based true crime fan Tanya Teten. "I appreciate that approach and actively look for podcasts that are delivered in that manner."
"I really think it is more of a culture thing," says Ling. "I think we just don't have the same affinity for the sort of bombastic coverage that some Americans prefer."
I knew that when my best friend and I started our now-defunct podcast Sick Sad World, we were looking to create content that more accurately represented our perspectives and values that we didn't see reflected in other true crime content. We weren't attempting to make specifically Canadian content, but we wanted to create a podcast that talked about the systems and institutions that create the circumstances that allow for the crimes to happen. So I decided to speak to other independent Canadian true crime podcasters about their process and how they came to develop it.
"As an avid true crime listener [...] I really appreciated the podcasts that took the time to take a sympathetic look at the victims, without obviously romanticizing what happened to them or glorifying it," says Lee about her approach to Canadian True Crime. "I saw a lot of podcasts being dismissive of people with mental health issues, and victim blaming, and not being sensitive towards people and communities that need to be described in a sensitive manner. So I just kind of aligned myself more with that way of telling the story."
"A lot of my episodes involve interviews in collaboration with people that are connected with the stories, and I think that's something not very common with podcasting, especially with the kind of independent level of podcasting," says Jordan Bonaparte, host of Nighttime Podcast.
As Bonaparte notes, many independent podcasters don't have the same access to resources as podcasters from mainstream media like CBC, and often just summarize information that is already available on each case.
"The way I try to differentiate myself from [other independent podcasts] is by covering lesser-known stories but making a point to do firsthand research and firsthand interviews with the people involved," he says. "That way when someone listens to my show, it's hopefully a story they've never heard or don't know much about — and when they listen to it, they'll learn the entire story and they'll hear it from the point of view and hopefully from the words of the person who was there or directly affected by it."
Ling and Bonaparte seem to agree that Canadian true crime podcasts reflect the ways that our mainstream media differs from our southerly neighbours.
"I think when a major crime happens, the coverage in Canada [is] tasteful and thoughtful," says Bonaparte. "Then when you compare when something major happens in the States, it's covered like it's a review of an action movie in some cases, and that seems to carry through to podcasters and bloggers."
Or maybe it's that, as he jokes about Canadians at the end of our phone call, "We're all sorry about everything."
Whatever the reason, Canadian podcasters have built up our own subgenre of true crime that is speaking deeply to audiences. We are telling stories in ways that do more than just entertain or titillate, but also educate and empathize. Even as the world spirals increasingly out of control, true crime podcasts can help us find comfort in the chaos and connect us through the darkness.