Black and white photo of trees along a trail at night

The history, mysteries, and ethics of true crime podcasts

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The only documented proof of Cleo’s existence is a faded sepia-tone school photo. Her clear brown eyes are framed by uneven bangs. She wears a striped turtleneck and her hair is cropped in a short bob. It’s undated, but Cleo’s sister believes she was nine or ten when the photo was taken. The young Cree girl is the heart of CBC’s 2018 podcast Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo, which follows a family’s search for their missing sister —Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine.

On Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan, located 53 kilometres northwest of North Battleford, a big canvas teepee sits in front of a blue house. Inside the sacred lodging on a bright sunny day in June 2017, Connie Walker can smell the sweetgrass, hear the Cree language, and feel the ground beneath her. The prairie sky is vast and blue, and a ring of sunlight trickles beneath the canvas cloth. She sits among other people, some are cross-legged on cushions, others on the green grass. She listens as Elder Alex Kennedy leads a pipe ceremony, a braid of sweetgrass draped across his knee. “We’re having a hard time because we’re far into a colonized system. Our children don’t speak Cree, they don’t understand Cree, they don’t understand the first thing about pipe,” says Kennedy. “We’re trying to teach them in school, and the problem is that the parents are young also, and they’ve lost their language, they’ve lost their ways and their way of raising their children.”

Walker listens intently, her fingers resting across her mouth. She travelled with producer Marnie Luke to the rural reservation at the behest of Cleo’s sister, Christine Cameron (who now goes by Crystal, her birth name). She had recurring dreams about her lost sister visiting her as a four or five year old child.

Cleo’s spirit is very much alive. She stares at me across time, asking to come home,” Crystal says in the first episode of the series. “It’s such a mystery, such an impossible task to find her and bring her home, but I still have hope.

Walker loved the ceremony—but something felt off. “[Crystal] should have been there with us, and then we should have been letting her lead that,” she says later. Crystal and her siblings Cleo, Johnny, Mark, Annette, and April were caught up in the Sixties Scoop, along with thousands of Indigenous children. They were picked up by child welfare authorities, placed in temporary foster homes, and then forcibly adopted into non-Indigenous households. They were taken from their families and culture. Crystal longed for connections to her Cree community. She was the one who first reached out to Walker, seeking answers about her sister. Finding Cleo was about Crystal’s journey, too.

That moment—when Walker realized Crystal’s absence and the value of her participation in documenting Cleo’s story—informed the direction of her reporting. She pushed CBC to grant special permission for Crystal to travel with producers Marnie Luke and Jennifer Fowler to New Jersey. From there, Crystal led the way. She walked into the coroner’s office to get the death certificate; she knocked on the door of a retired police officer to seek answers; she read the police file first. In Finding Cleo, Walker reframed the story and made sure that Crystal helped tell it. “Small ways of changing your thinking can be really powerful for people, and can inevitably lead to a better story and to a more authentic truth,” says Walker. The podcast landed on many publications’ top lists, including Vulture’s The 10 True-Crime Podcasts That Changed Everything.” And it won best serialized story at Third Coast International Audio Festival, an international awards show in Chicago that bills itself as the Sundance of Radio.

Finding Cleo exists at the apogee of an extraordinary rise in true crime podcasts across North America, and elsewhere. The genre explosion of the mid-to-late-2010s ranges from rehashing tales of bloody gore to expert investigative reportage. Podcasts include Dirty John from Wondery, Serial from This American Life, and Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer. And some podcasts have demonstrated impact, such as Peabody Award-winning In the Dark from APM Reports, which resulted in an overturned conviction.

To carve out a niche in the true crime space, journalists work to unearth long-buried truths and expose wrongdoings, while taking care to provide important societal and historical context. Unanswered questions are prompting journalists to take advantage of the popular genre as a narrative device to tell complex and challenging stories. Often, they explore underreported narratives that have not easily found space in the traditional Canadian media scene.

It helps that the podcast audience is significant and growing. There are 850,000 active global podcasts and more than 30 million episodes, figures that have almost doubled in the past two years. In Canada, nearly 11 million adults have listened to podcasts in the past year. CBC has been successful with true crime podcasts it has produced since 2016: Hunting Warhead, launched in September 2019, debuted at number one in Canada on Apple Podcasts; Since the launch of its fifth season, Someone Knows Something has reached 27 million downloads; Cumulatively, episodes of the Uncover series have been downloaded more than 25 million times. These podcasts frequently appear at the top of Canadian podcast charts. There are others: News site and podcast network Canadaland launched Thunder Bay in 2018, which exposes corruption and systemic racism in the northern Ontario town, and Accessible Media Inc. debuted What Happened to Holly Bartlett in 2019.

Some podcast companies have secured investments, film, and television deals. Last year, Spotify acquired U.S.-based podcast networks Gimlet Media and Anchor for $340 million (U.S.). Dirty John from Wondery was made into a television series in 2018. Curiouscast’s Crime Beat (from long-time Global Calgary crime reporter Nancy Hixt) is being made into a TV series on Global. Thunder Bay is also set to be adapted for television.

Alongside this success, some journalists, critics, and listeners are concerned about the true crime genre: what are the ethical considerations when producing a journalism podcast? Reporters have started to move away from appealing solely to curiosity and bloodlust about predators and victims, toward a more responsible application of journalistic rules and practices. While Serial was the pioneer in this landscape of true crime audio reporting, critics of the show have raised questions about both premise and approach. In 2014, for instance, Australia-based writer Stephanie Van Schilt wrote in Spook about Serial’s “problematic” positioning of the narrative in a dead girl TV-style drama, calling it an “ethically murky endeavour.”

As Connie Walker says in an episode of CBC’s Unreserved: We are just at the beginning of ethical true crime podcasting.

True crime frenzies have emerged in popular culture throughout history as a reactionary wave to cultural and economic events, says Michael Arntfield, criminologist and true crime consultant. They may act as an antidote to difficulties that some face, like anxiety, mental health, trauma, and addiction. “It’s always had a cathartic purpose,” says Arntfield. “The salience and relevance of it seems to depend on other greater uncertainties in society, whereby these horrific stories seem to put people’s own problems in perspective.”

Small ways of changing your thinking can be really powerful for people, and can inevitably lead to a better story and to a more authentic truth Connie Walker

While the podcast medium may be novel, the true crime narrative is as old as time. It follows a long trajectory dating back to late sixteenth century England, where people would clamour for true crime pamphlets. Arntfield proposes four true crime waves, the first of which emerges with Edgar Allan Poe’s romans à clef in the 1840s, and Charles Dickens’ chronicles of day-to-day police investigations in the 1850s.

A century later, the genre comes back with Truman Capote’s 1966 In Cold Blood—what Arntfield refers to as “the 20th-century’s first definitive look at true crime.” The “non-fiction” novel, in the style of longform investigative journalism, “became the reference point for every other high-brow true crime work in every other medium,” writes Soraya Roberts in Longreads. Norman Mailer’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner’s Song followed a similar “new journalism” style—a blend of journalistic research and literary techniques—before the medium shifted again. And while a new form emerged, the obsession with true crime persisted. The third wave, in the 1980s, was defined by the rise of tabloid television and newsmagazine shows like Hard Copy or Geraldo, which were fixated on celebritizing criminals like Charles Manson. In response to this heyday of what Arntfield describes as “sleazy TV,” in the mid-90s, spokespersons for the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio Television Digital News Association pointed to “an obvious public appetite for Hollywood-style crime stories,” like O.J. Simpson, the Menéndez Brothers, and Tonya Harding.

The current wave is driven by technological changes. In their book Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution, authors Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann write that podcasts are “evergreen”—available (theoretically) in perpetuity. Generally consumed through earbuds or in the car, the medium is more intimate and more mobile than radio. There is also more listener control—the ability to rewind and relisten. Podcasts are usually free and easily accessible, providing a level of access that other mediums don’t.

Serial entered this space early, in 2014, a decade after the podcast was born. Until then, podcasts had covered everything from science, design, and stories of everyday life. But the crime-focused podcast from This American Life (and Chicago Public Media) changed the game. In it, journalist Sarah Koenig investigates the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee. Through tinny prison phone calls, Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed maintains he was wrongfully convicted for her murder 15 years earlier.

The first episode opens with Koenig’s fascination with the case: “For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999.”

Audiences were riveted and Serial became a sensation. Listeners discussed and dissected each of the 12 episodes. The show revolutionized longform audio storytelling. It was a serialized story (“One story told week by week”) that presented the case in a narrative format. From the comfort of one’s own home, listeners could tag along with Koenig as she set out to uncover the truth. Atmospheric and descriptive, Serial became the blueprint for a type of audio storytelling with hallmark characteristics: the contemplative narrator, the dogged journalist. As with audio documentaries, the reporter often investigates with a recorder running, pulling back the curtain on journalistic methods and approach. In episode three, “Leakin Park,” Koenig visits the park where Lee’s body was found, 127 feet from a roadway, wondering what that distance really looked like. Listeners hear as they count out steps on a bitter February day. Off-mic moments also help to capture the reporter’s current surroundings, such as this one in Serial, when producer Dana Chivvis quips, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.

In her analysis of the seductive nature of podcasts, The New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead notes that the show borrowed from conventions of investigative journalism, the memoir and the potboiler. She equated the “leap in narrative innovation” on a level with Capote’s In Cold Blood. This mashup of genre-bending techniques gave birth to the narrative true crime podcast and inspired copy-cat series with similar tropes, tone, and narrative arcs. In fact, authors Spinelli and Dann define the golden age of podcasting as beginning in late 2014 with Apple’s inclusion of the built-in podcasting app on every iPhone—and the launch of Serial.

Serial began a trend encompassing a multitude of approaches, some journalistic, others not. Bear Brook from New Hampshire Public Radio, CBC’s Someone Knows Something, and Gimlet Media’s Crimetown deploy classic investigative journalism practices, while others explore the genre through comedy, like The Last Podcast on the Left and My Favorite Murder. Somewhere in between is the land of obsessives and armchair detectives, like Crime Junkie Podcast and Kristi Lee’s Canadian True Crime (one of Canada’s top independent podcasts, which was born in a closet.)

What draws audiences to true crime stories? A 2018 study from the Broadcast Education Association’s scholarly publication, the Journal of Radio & Audio Media, found that the main motivation for listening to true crime podcasts is entertainment. There seems to be almost an obsessive frenzy among listeners, most of whom are women. True crime fans are spend more time than the average podcast listener, with 60 percent listening five or more hours per week. Arntfield points to the interactive dimension of true crime stories as part of DIY, post-truth culture. “It makes everyone want to pile on and get involved, and proffer their own theories, and sort of play detective,” says Arntfield. For instance, amateur web sleuths on Reddit forums and Facebook pages were hell-bent on solving the 15-year-old Serial case. Listeners took public discussion to another level and crowdsourced the investigation—positing theories, discussing suspects, and speculating like crazy.

“We’re fascinated by monsters. And really, on a simplistic, visceral level, that’s how a lot of people interpret these crimes,” says Arntfield.

Details can be gory. In Wondery’s 2018 ten-part investigative podcast series Dr. Death, American health journalist Laura Beil describes a botched spinal surgery with soaked sponges seeping blood and dripping to the floor. “There was a lot of blood, way more than there should have been,” Beil says in the first episode. “There was a bucket on the floor for used sponges. Usually when they’re tossed into the bucket, they’re splotchy or slightly pink, but not this time. The sponges were soaked through with blood.

The true crime genre is sensational by nature, says reporter Michelle Shephard. “You can’t avoid that. But we made every effort to try and not make it entertainment,” she says, “To make it still journalism and to have a larger point.” She’s referring to CBC’s Uncover: Sharmini, which she hosted.

In June 1999, Sharmini Anandavel went missing from her Don Mills home in the North York district of Toronto. Four months later, hikers found her remains in a shallow grave in a wooded ravine, next to the Don River. The murder of the girl with a beaming white smile shook the Tamil community and beyond. “I’m haunted by what happened to her on that day,” Shephard says in the first episode. “No one was ever held responsible.

It’s not a new story for Shephard, who first reported on the teenager’s murder 20 years ago. A photograph of the 15-year-old sits on her desk; she has kept it all this time. In it, Sharmini Anandavel wears a gold sari. Red and white flowers are pinned into her dark hair. Gold jewelry adorns her neck, dangles from her ears, and she wears a maang tikka, a piece of jewelry worn on the forehead. She looks over her shoulder into a mirror, beaming. Sharmini’s parents gave Shephard the photo when she was a crime reporter for the Toronto Star. “I covered a lot of cases and a lot of them weren’t solved, but this was one that had stuck for various reasons,” she says.

Shephard and producer Kathleen Goldhar took special care to produce an unfiltered story and to make subtle music choices, something they say can make or break the listener’s experience.

Sharmini appealed to NOW culture writer Radheyan Simonpillai because it wasn’t just a grim retelling of the crime. “It painted a picture of that time, of that demographic, of the neighborhood, of the crime, and about all the factors that went into Sharmini becoming a victim,” he says. The producers considered the familial situation, the neighbourhood they lived in, and their economic standing—all factors that contributed to Sharmini’s vulnerability. “I think that empathy and taking that kind of detail, that stands out.”

Immersive storytelling helps to bring the listener to a specific time and place. “You can be somewhere in a podcast, like you can actually go somewhere,” says Goldhar, who worked on CBC’s The Current for 17 years. She produced season one and season five of Uncover. She loves to catch off-mic exchanges or muffled, authentic moments, such as when Shephard is in a car preparing to go into Warkworth Institution, the medium-security prison where suspect Stanley Tippett is being held. “I’m just going to put my laptop under your seat so it’s out of sight,” Shephard says to Goldhar in episode four, “It’d be kind of ironic to have your car broken into at a prison.”

These moments don’t necessarily advance the narrative, but they transport listeners and fix them there. “She didn’t say that to put it into the podcast. But it was perfect,” says Goldhar. There were opportunities to “torque it up” or exaggerate the gravity of the situation, such as when Shephard and Tippett meet face-to-face for the first time in two decades. They chose not to. Goldhar says they made a conscious effort to make the prison visit sound realistic. No embellishment or cueing up dramatic music to build tension that wasn’t really there. “We made it what it was,” says Goldhar.

Goldhar and Shephard spent hours debating music choices for specific segments, opting for subtle impact over drama. “There’s a couple of times where a sounder would put one ding of a piano and it gave us both chills,” says Goldhar. “And isn’t that amazing? Half a second of sound can do something to you.”

How media companies package podcasts to draw in listeners is also instructive. In February, for example, two companies released podcasts about the Satanic Panic, a time during the 1980s marked by widespread hysteria about occult rituals and devil worship in North America and beyond. Conviction: American Panic comes from Gimlet Media, and Uncover: Satanic Panic from CBCThe promotional trailers take starkly different approaches. Gimlet Media’s promo ad features hard rock music and a metal guitar riff accompanied by a host who says, “We’re telling a story about a time when children all across the country were accusing their parents, their neighbours, their teachers, of horrific crimes.” CBC’s promo is more subdued. Halfway through its three-minute trailer, the host says, “The thing is, there were no Satanic cults preying on children,” effectively de-mystifying the mystery before it even starts.

Post-Serial overload, some podcasts started to lean away from the true crime blueprint, pulling a bait-and-switch: Purporting to be a crime mystery at the outset, before flipping the narrative on its head. A notable podcast that employed this tactic was S-Town, from the producers of Serial and This American Life. It was downloaded a record-breaking 10 million times in the first four days of its 2017 release. In S-Town, producer Brian Reed goes to Woodstock, Alabama, to meet John B. McLemore, an eclectic character who claims there was a murder in his hometown. But the narrative wanders, instead opting for a Southern Gothic literary exploration of mental health, societal decay, and antique clocks.

Similarly, Jon Ronson’s The Last Days of August seems like it’s about the suicide of porn star August Ames who was victimized on the Internet. In the second episode, Ronson clarifies the podcast is actually about the dangers of cyberbullying. Out of Canada, Rogers’ Frequency Podcast Network’s The Gravy Train, about the political career of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and the rise of populist politics that came after him, was intentionally marketed as a true crime story. “Producing this podcast, we were very aware of the fact that true crime is what sells. It’s going to bring people in and make them want to listen,” says Annalise Nielsen, digital editor for the podcast.

That’s the approach Justin Ling took with CBC’s Uncover: The Village. Prior to producing the nine-episode series, Ling had written for Vice NewsThe Globe and Mail, and Maclean’s about the men who went missing from the Toronto Gay Village between 2010 and 2017. He reported on the investigation, the eventual arrest, and the court process. The Bruce McArthur case had been covered extensively in the media, so he wanted to elevate it beyond a serial killer podcast.

Ling and producers Jennifer Fowler and Erin Byrnes saw public interest in McArthur as an opportunity to sift through archives and dig up 14 cold cases that hadn’t been properly interrogated by police. “Cops have said they’re going back to 1975 to review a string of unsolved murders and open missing persons cases, all to see if Bruce MacArthur’s fingerprints show up,” Ling says in the third episode, “I figure, if Toronto Police are dusting off a bunch of cold case murders, so will I.” Ling’s research exposes the history of police’s reluctance to investigate disappearances of gay men dating back to the 1970s.

Worldwide, unsolved murders of queer and marginalized people have been forgotten or lost in time. Ling says these cases can tell us a lot about the failures of our society and the way we treat marginalized people.

The challenge is how to do it right, at least from the point of view of an ethical journalism podcast. Executive producer of CBC Podcasts Arif Noorani refers to “a kind of manifesto” he developed on ethical true crime, which is reflective of CBC’s investigative journalism-first principle. “It fits in the true crime category, but the way we approach our work is really guided by decades-long history at CBC around doing investigative journalism for a larger purpose and in the public interest.”

Noorani and his team receive a multitude of pitches, but tend to take on cases that have a larger societal or cultural fit. “We try to take cases where there’s a pattern of something happening, so something failed in the justice system, or there’s a larger in-depth issue or theme to explore,” he says. The stories have to go beyond the crime itself—uncovering abuses of power, a social history, or the impact of the crime on communities. “Doing true crime with a larger purpose is really what connected with folks,” he says. Uncover: The Village was featured in The New Yorker’s best podcasts of 2019. In a review, Sarah Larson writes that The Village is both a gesture toward healing and a work of investigation. “The care that Ling brings to the story elevates it beyond true crime; what’s being uncovered isn’t a culprit but a history,” she writes.

Canadaland successfully crowdfunded to produce its first investigative podcast, Thunder Bay, in 2018. In it, Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe host Ryan McMahon reports on the Ontario community which has repeatedly had the highest homicide rate and hate crime rate in Canada. McMahon is not attempting to solve a murder; he’s looking into the deaths of nine Indigenous teens to tell a wider story about the lasting impact of colonialism. “The question I’m trying to answer is not who killed all those kids. It’s what killed those kids. Because something strange has been going on here,” he says in the first episode of the five-part series.

Thunder Bay, a mix of true crime and social activism, is vital listening for all Canadians, writes Luke Ottenhof in an article for the CBC. “But the culprit, in this case, isn’t a person. It’s a city, and more accurately, a system, working in tandem to erase and kill Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.”

There’s a sense among the Canadian podcast community that this is how true crime podcasts are produced, in particular those by journalists and media organizations. In his work analyzing the podcast space, Jeff Ulster, co-founder and chief technology officer at The Podcast Exchange (TPX), says American media is more likely to showcase more exploitative stories and gory details. “I think that’s a bit more in the culture of popular storytelling in America and it’s maybe a little more mild here in Canada,” says Ulster. “People are just a little bit more reserved and a little bit less sensational in terms of how they tend to tell stories like that here.”

Candice Williams, a 34-year-old true crime diehard who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, has actively sought out Canadian podcasts, which she says tend to have excellent research, engaging hosts, and phenomenal storytelling. “There’s none that I found that are as good, obviously, as CBC. But there are other Canadian ones that I listened to. Because I don’t know, I just feel like they always seem to be better.” From Finding Cleo, she learned about the residential school system in Canada and decided to embark on her own research project. “I don’t know anybody here that knows that. Like, we’re not taught that in school. And I was fascinated by it,” says Williams.

Connie Walker reflected on Finding Cleo’s wide audience during a panel discussion at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto. “By using the popularity of the true crime genre, we were able to reach people who didn’t even know that they were interested in Indigenous issues, to attract people who came for the mystery, but who stayed to learn about Canadian history,” she told the crowd at Hot Docs.

The medium, Nielsen says, has the power to tell a bigger story. “Because systemic problems are something we can all fix. Whereas, what is the purpose of telling the story of somebody who went through some of the most horrible things in their life?”

Having people talk about the most horrible things in their life: this was especially concerning for Maggie Rahr, a freelance investigative journalist based in Halifax. She was the writer and host of What Happened to Holly Bartlett for Toronto-based Accessible Media Inc., which provides programming for people with vision and hearing loss. Rahr knew that her work could impact survivors of trauma. In the six-episode series, she investigates the death of 31-year-old Holly Bartlett, a blind woman who was found unconscious under a bridge and later died in hospital. The Halifax police ruled her death accidental. But in the years since her death, her family has believed foul play was involved.

Rahr approaches stories with trauma at the centre with caution, and, for her, step one is to respond to a participant seeking answers. “Basically, my rule is that I don’t report on someone who’s experienced trauma unless they come to me, whether it’s a family member, or someone who has been directly harmed or abused,” says Rahr.

After writing the first script, Rahr was worried listeners would find the storytelling too slow and stop listening because the opening wasn’t flashy or horrifying. It isn’t until the 20-minute mark of the first episode that listeners learn what happened to Holly. Rahr wanted to respect the dignity of the family and honour Holly’s memory. She did not focus on the grisly details, but instead on who she was. “I think about Holly every single day,” she says.

“I do think we have a moral obligation to ensure that we don’t harm people in that process,” says Rahr, “And I think that’s part of a conversation that needs to happen now more than ever, now that this content is more readily available.”

From her bed in Savannah, Georgia, Erin Hendricks often works on her True Crime Podcast Database, where she has logged more than 2,800 podcasts in an extensive spreadsheet since its launch in October 2018. “It’s just something I do in my free time. I have a physical disability and podcasts really keep my mind off my physical disability and my pain.” Hendricks is a survivor of sexual violence and has gotten more interested in true crime since being assaulted.

“My assailant will never see the inside of a police station, let alone the inside of a courtroom or jail cell. So, hearing a story of somebody who has been through a crime, who’s been a victim, seeing them get justice, even if it’s not complete justice, even if it’s not a conviction, seeing somebody have their story heard and have it recognized is the sort of vicarious validation that I think is really important to people who have trauma,” says Hendricks.

Reporters have started to move away from appealing solely to curiosity and bloodlust about predators and victims, toward a more responsible application of journalistic rules and practices

People are drawn to true crime podcasts for a myriad of personal reasons. Williams, the true crime diehard, has subscribed to more than 250 true crime podcasts and listens for eight to 10 hours per day for one reason only: She wants to know how the perpetrator got caught. Unless information presented is pertinent to the crime itself, Williams says, “I don’t care. I don’t care what you did as a kid, I don’t care that you play the cello. I don’t care that you moved when you were nine and your goldfish died.” She was recently hired as a private investigator associate and is training under a licensed PI.

Trauma drew 34-year-old GTA resident Danielle Pento to the genre. Although she watched Unsolved Mysteries on TV, Pento’s fascination grew over time, peaking after a traumatic personal experience: “I just couldn’t understand why that person did what they did,” she says. “It just drove me to find out about all these other people and why they did what they did. I’ll be honest with you, I never got the answer that I wanted, but I still really love true crime, so it’s okay.”

Others come to the true crime podcast simply to learn, like Angelin Edwin, a 20-year-old history and human geography student at the University of Toronto, who says she’s in it for the personal safety tips. “I can learn to spot someone who has criminal tendencies and stuff,” she says. Last summer, Edwin started her own true crime podcast, An Autopsy of the Dark Side, which she records from her bedroom in her parent’s house.

Regardless of why audiences are captivated by true crime, it’s up to media organizations and journalists to champion ethical principles. As journalists share space with creators including private investigators, comedians, and armchair detectives, they have to distinguish their stories. Journalists have been successful by demonstrating empathy for victims of trauma, carefully considering music and tone, and detracting focus from the crime itself. Through a true crime lens, they tell stories about real people and provide often-neglected context about the systemic and structural issues that place victims in vulnerable situations.

“We’re doing journalism first and foremost and worrying less about the entertainment. If people are entertained, great. But we want to produce journalism, not to produce a podcast that’s going to get optioned for a movie,” says Ling. “And we’re not doing this not to just make money or entertain people, or give people a laugh, or to get true crime buffs to binge our show. We did this because there’s issues at play that we wanted to investigate.”

While teaching an Indigenous Studies course to 11th and 12th graders at St. Oscar Romero Catholic Secondary School, high school history teacher Maureen Carolan had an idea. After listening to Finding Cleo, Carolan played the podcast in her classroom. She says the impact on students was resounding. “Their conclusion was that every student in Canada should listen to this podcast,” says Carolan, who is now the consultant of experiential programs at the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board (DPCDSB). “That marked the ‘aha’ moment for me of, Okay, we’ve got to make this a resource for classrooms.” Shortly after, in summer 2018, she developed a free teaching guide with her colleague Paula Nevins, a literary consultant at DPCDSB. Connie Walker worked with them on the curriculum, and Dufferin-Peel’s Indigenous Education Advisory Council provided consultation. The guide provides educators with resources to examine themes presented in Finding Cleo, including the Sixties Scoop, the history of colonization, the legacy of residential schools, and the Adopt Indian and Métis Program.

Hearing the voices of real people, students were more emotionally invested in the story, says Nevins. “When we’ve shared it with students, they had that sense of being very drawn into it, and quite shocked and dismayed by what they learn about the country we call Canada,” she says, “There’s a lot of trouble beneath the surface of the traditional historical narrative they’ve been given.”

Finding Cleo, a story that spans more than seven hours, is a story about one girl and her family. “But really, it’s a story about thousands of families in Canada, and thousands of families that continue to be affected by the things that contributed to the Sixties Scoop and contribute to the ongoing overrepresentation of kids in care,” says Walker.

Nevins and Carolan’s teaching guide has been downloaded nearly 5,000 times across North America, throughout Europe, and as far as Australia and New Zealand. “It was kind of exciting when we released this, to just watch all these pins on the map start spreading,” says Nevins.

That teachers are using Finding Cleo to educate young people about Canada’s colonial past is the best feedback Walker has received to date. “That to me, is better than any download number or award.”

How to True Crime

What CBC podcast producers look for in true crime stories

Arif Noorani, executive producer of CBC Podcasts, co-founded the department with Leslie Merklinger in 2015. The podcast unit now has over 20 shows, including Someone Knows SomethingUncover, and Hunting Warhead, with more than two dozen seasons across all genres.

Here are Noorani’s four guiding pillars for true crime audio series on the CBC:

1. Are the family, friends, or victims on board?

Family, friends, and victims need to be placed front and centre in the story. It’s important that they are looking for answers and open to talking to reporters. “Our motto is do good, not harm. So we don’t want to re-traumatize families,” says Noorani.

2. Are there unanswered questions?

“We won’t take on a case that’s already closed and shut,” he says. Someone seeking answers to an unresolved mystery or digging deeper to find clarity is key. They want to pursue cases that need more investigating and spark bigger questions.

3. Are there enough layers to make multiple chapters?

A more creative and editorial pillar, this one hinges on storytelling potential. Sometimes a story could be done in an hour-long documentary. Noorani and his team look for lots of room to explore—six to eight chapters worth.

4. Can it go beyond the case itself?

The crime case should be a way of getting into a larger, in-depth issue or a significant trend. “One of the things that guides all of our series is it has to be more than about just the case. It has to be about something else. So uncovering social history, uncovering an injustice in the system, uncovering the human heart and soul of the story,” he says.

—Emily Latimer

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About the author

Emily Latimer is a senior digital editor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Last year she shelved half-finished screenplays to pursue journalism. She has interned as a web writer at CBC Halifax and worked as a reporter and editor at CBC Cape Breton.

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