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Can’t Look Away: How True Crime Series are Edited

A man walks down the hallway of a long cruise ship.Aboard the CrimeCruise

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the number of cadavers I saw—the four-day cruise was, after all, never about the destination (Cozumel?) and entirely about the journey, hundreds of miles through legally murky international waters with the promise of a lethal formula: “Hot sun. Cold cases. Unforgettable vacation.” A marine offshoot of the hugely successful CrimeCon, the 2023 CrimeCruise promised lectures from famous crime scene investigators, podcast hosts and a self-described “walking lie detector” to an almost entirely white, female audience that preferred to avoid sunburns, instead spending time in windowless lecture halls interpreting stippling patterns and keyhole-shaped entry wounds. Those who shelled out extra for a VIP badge could hear war stories from a hunky, bourbon-sipping ex-detective.

One amateur-turned-professional investigative genetic genealogist felt the need to remind us that these stories—of abusive cult leaders, disappearances, serial killers—are not entertainment. “Not just entertainment, anyway,” she added before flipping through a gory PowerPoint presentation. This got to the heart of my own interest in the matter: I approached the cruise not as a crime junkie or murderino, in the parlance of leading crime podcasts, but as a film editor fascinated by the rise of true crime as an uneasy compromise between entertainment and real-life tragedy. Having never worked in true crime save for one ill-fated criminal justice pilot episode, I had little direct knowledge of this world—but a stream of true crime job inquiries made the phenomenon hard to ignore.

The golden age of true crime

Aboard the cruise, CSI-turned-TV host Alina Burroughs saluted her crew members, showing a picture of a team-building field trip to the gun range. But I wanted to hear from the crew themselves: What does it mean for them that true crime is the biggest game in town? I began my own investigation by speaking with editors, the stewards of the process by which fragments of a complex and messy reality become consumable media. As the workers who ultimately shape the form and content of a documentary, contend with network notes and act as ethical backstops, they have unique insight into these seismic shifts in the documentary business. How has the true crime boom influenced the craft, working conditions and career prospects for editors?

Mikaela Shwer, whose wide-ranging credits include the recent HBO true crime series Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, observed that “the industry has gone more toward true crime or celebrity as the main things being sold.” Richard Hankin, ACE, a supervising editor on The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and The Vow, attributed the genre’s ascent to “corporate consolidation and less risk-taking overall,” a desire on the part of funders to focus on profitable “buckets” like crime, celebrity, sports and adventure. This is in response to viewership—true crime remained the top performing documentary subgenre in 2023—as well as the growing visibility and prestige of the category. In 2022, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which runs the Emmy awards, created a separate Outstanding Crime and Justice Documentary category to recognize documentaries “focused on crime, the law, and other legal and criminal justice-related topics.” That same year, CrimeCon inaugurated its CLUE Awards. (CLUE stands for “Commitment to Leadership, Understanding, and Excellence.”)

As a corollary of the streaming true crime boom, cults, cons and abuse have joined the pantheon of misdeeds ripe for a blue-chip streaming miniseries. At my first dinner on the CrimeCruise, my tablemates each had a different predilection—organized crime, cults, murder (military), murder (serial). Such advanced taste is possible because of the cornucopia of true crime tales at our fingertips. It came as no surprise that several editors I spoke to described their work as “true crime adjacent” or expressed confusion around where the genre begins and ends. Often, crime elements are seen as a value-add for series that also fall into other documentary categories: Tiger King, a runaway success in 2020, began as a quirky character portrait and animal welfare story before getting a glowup of “murder, mayhem and madness.” Each such streaming success reinforces the sense that every series could be made more commercial if sweetened by some criminal wrongdoing.

The expansion of true crime job opportunities has also narrowed the range of genre and format choices. “I really miss editing feature docs, but I started a family in 2020, so I had to make sure I had income and be less picky about projects,” said Christopher Walker, who has worked on several true crime series. “I would love to cut a vérité feature doc 100 million times over a true crime series, but it’s just what networks want on screen.” Even for editors lukewarm on or downright averse to true crime, the paycheck is undeniable—as is the potential for career advancement. Mia (a pseudonym for an editor of a high-profile cult series) expressed frustration that “I’ve been editing for a while, and I feel like people didn’t know who I was until I edited” the successful series. “And I’m very conflicted about that series.” The pervasiveness of true crime has left many editors wary of speaking openly about their work; many post-production workers I interviewed for this piece were willing to speak only on condition of anonymity. I have used pseudonyms to distinguish among recurring voices.

Many of my conversations with editors quickly turned to how the hunger for this content has shaped schedules, budgets and post-production workflows. Although these issues are not limited to true crime, the category’s primacy makes it a good indication of broader documentary industry trends. A sidebar accompanying this article focuses on working conditions.

Constructing a true crime story

What sets a successful true crime series apart? For Hankin, a key feature is the “aliveness” that comes with a present-tense component, such as The Jinx’s interview with Robert Durst that made an otherwise retrospective story into an active investigation when Durst reacted to evidence in real time and ultimately confessed on a hot mic. This demand for present-tense developments is sometimes impossible to achieve. Edward, a documentary editor and assistant editor who asked to be identified by first name only, pointed to studios asking, “Where’s the confession?” as if every show could, with a little effort, achieve the same conclusion as season one of The Jinx. “This is real life. We can’t just manufacture confessions.”1

On a macro level, the cast of characters—“a bad guy, a good guy and the victims or survivors and their families”—remains relatively consistent, according to Mia. So does the structure: “All of these shows start, ‘It was a beautiful place—until it wasn’t.’” The first episode—the “hook episode”—tends to draw the most attention during the network feedback process as editors determine how much setup and drama to frontload into the first episode or to withhold. By design, it must hold the attention of my cruise dinner companion, who insisted she’d try any true crime series once, but, if it didn’t immediately captivate her, move on.

A grabbing setup is followed by “all the unnecessary twists and turns to make a convoluted” second act, peppered with shady characters and red herrings. The second act’s winding path, which traces the rhythms of an investigation, can be expanded or contracted like an accordion. “If anything, having the true crime spine sometimes allows you to just get in more weird scenes,” said Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, one of the editors of Tiger King. Nevertheless, nuances have to be condensed and simplified for storytelling efficiency. Amateur sleuths in the audience can be unforgiving when they feel the show has glossed over important elements of a case, but for better or worse, their ire is mostly directed at hosts like Burroughs and not at her editors.

True crime is inherently, in the addiction-inflected language of streaming culture, “bingeable.” In Mia’s experience, accentuating the compulsive qualities of the viewing experience is one of the central aims for executives preoccupied with “cold opens and what would be a good cliffhanger.” Frequent true crime editor Jen (a pseudonym) has found streamer notes increasingly prescriptive, even nitpicky, as the industry has contracted. Notes often begin well before the footage has been shot, with an extended pre-production period during which the streamer provides feedback on a series outline based on hypothetical material.

While streaming originally promised a more captive audience without commercial breaks, fierce competition among streamers has driven executives to fixate on maximizing a key metric: “completion rate.” Fortunately for them, true crime is uniquely suited to this demand for constant dramatic escalation. Inbal Lessner, ACE, who has edited two cult series with director Cecilia Peck, recalled a network executive who frequently invoked the “pillars of horror.” Said Lessner, “She would almost time it. Every five minutes, something crazy has to happen.” But streamers are threatened less by one another than by your phone. Netflix now conceives of many of its shows as “second-screen” content destined to be consumed while the viewer is distracted, according to Edward. “The notes we’re getting are very similar to when I started in true crime: ‘The shows we make are for the mom at home who’s making dinner for her family.’ So, you need to tell the audience three different times what they’re watching.”

The components of a true crime edit

Vérité-style true crime documentaries are seen as more difficult and less predictable than those built on a foundation of interviews. “They do tons of pre-production and know exactly what they want to get from their interviews,” according to a veteran editor I’ll refer to as Alice. “Sometimes the themes and trajectory of the documentary or series are predetermined, but how you carry the viewer along and arrive at your destination is always a discovery.”

Andrew Coffman, who has edited several true crime films and series with director-producer Erin Lee Carr, mapped out some typical true crime interview types. First, one might search for a journalist acting as “an authoritative voice to guide you through the different twists and turns.” In a cult show, that voice of authority might take the form of a cult expert who provides a theoretical framework for understanding the process of brainwashing. Then, one might seek out unreliable voices closer to the case at hand, often people “presenting things in a way that is more advantageous to their point of view” and who merit a higher degree of skepticism. Editing can be particularly transformative in these instances. Coffman believes that “whatever somebody is saying in the film, there’s an assumption that that is being endorsed”; it is the editor’s task to combat this tendency, at times undermining a speaker’s credibility or juxtaposing their statement with a contradictory one when the story demands it.

While interviews structure the narrative, because the events in question are frequently impossible to observe, the accompanying visuals must be cobbled together through implication. CCTV cameras and gliding drone shots evoke a sense of place while suggesting an anxiety, in the logic of state surveillance, around unseen threats. “Primary materials in true crime are very effective,” said Coffman. “Any time there’s a crime scene photograph or interrogation footage, I think that very quickly announces a film as true crime.” Achieving access to this sort of material can be pivotal. A feeling of “realness” or authenticity is often accentuated, in Coffman’s view, by the grunginess of the footage: “People don’t actually want a high-definition courtroom camera. It almost feels more exciting if you have this low-resolution surveillance feel.”

Some documentary series suffer for their lack of archival access. Not all footage can be licensed, due to budgetary constraints; some is free, pursuant to fair use, but only with the approval of the production’s legal team. The legal review, in Alice’s experience, generally “doesn’t happen until after a rough cut or two, maybe close to fine cut. So, you created this beautiful sequence, but all of a sudden, you have to find another way to tell the same story.” This often means even greater reliance on interview material, which is part of why filmmakers often record interviews with two or three cameras: Added coverage makes it possible to cut from one framing to another, lingering longer on an interviewee’s face without moving to other visuals.

But even the best archival material can only obliquely represent, say, the moments leading up to a murder. For that, true crime series rely on fictionalized reenactments, more commonly referred to now as “re-creations,” or “re-cres” for short. The evolving aesthetics of recreations are a matter of varying personal taste. Hankin and his collaborators on The Jinx joked about working with “backtors”: “You’re only seeing their backs. That’s my preference because it takes me out of it if I’m looking at a face and trying to compare to the actual character.”

Coffman’s preferred alternative is “atmospheric recreations, where you’re just filming the place where something happened.” It is more about evoking the “tragic romance” of a specific environment—the Louisiana bayou or coastal Massachusetts, for instance—than a specific moment. Others favor animated recreations to achieve greater abstraction because, Lessner said, “It’s very visceral. You feel more than you see.”

Recreations often draw on horror film devices, which some editors feel can cheapen the experience and risk upsetting victims. “I know I’m going to throw in the most dramatic music I have. There’s going to be a bunch of stings and booms and hits under every time the killer opens a door, takes a step…. A lot of the sound effects toolkits we use are used in horror movies,” said Edward. “There’s no way that is emotionally healing or restorative.”

Telling stories with sensitivity

Fighting for, commemorating and glorifying victims: In the cruise presenters’ words, that’s what this is all about. Yet, it can be hard to square their almost religious devotion to victims with a storytelling approach that often feels like an invitation to rubbernecking. True crime “easily goes into the salacious,” warned Keith Fraase, one of several editors on Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God. “It’s so easy for these victims to become just characters; it almost feels like a paperback novel all of a sudden. It’s very important for me to constantly step back and remember these are real people going through real things.” Salaciousness is subjective, but it has consequences: Producing this content risks retraumatizing victims and requires immense care. Jen sees the edit as the ultimate line of defense for good taste. “I like to think, ‘What would be OK for the victims’ families to watch?’” Though, she added, “I hope they don’t, because they don’t need to watch any of this.”

Not every production is attuned to these dangers. A documentary editor I’ll call Alex, who previously worked an entry-level production job for a long-running true crime series, described that process as “extremely traumatizing and ethically fucked up, one of the worst experiences of my life.” Amid gruesome crime scenes, “It was my job to talk to the family of the crime victim and get them to agree to be on the show.” The act of extracting compliance from a traumatized family member left a bitter taste in Alex’s mouth—especially because a subject couldn’t meaningfully refuse. “If people said no, we’re technically allowed to use [the footage] anyway,” so the pitch often involved assurances that participating in the show would be “really cathartic for the families” and an opportunity to “pay tribute to the person” by sharing childhood photographs. Several true crime field producers assured me that this is sincere: many families feel grateful to have their loved ones recognized on TV. But for Alex, “The amount of dissociation that you have to do in order to do that job is just awful.” Since then, they have steered clear of the genre.

A former associate producer—call him Mark—described working on a lowbrow true crime episode featuring “an affluent, white victim and affluent, white defendant. This gets true crime EPs frothing at the mouth.” By that point, the story had been so heavily covered by other outlets that people close to the victim were unwilling to participate—but the EP was determined. “Don’t come home until you get someone who will talk to us,” he demanded. Eventually, Mark found a yearbook for the victim and defendant’s high school and began cold-calling people until someone agreed to appear on camera, no matter how tenuous the connection. “That was a breaking point. I realized I have to have more ethical and quality standards,” he said.

Later, as an editor on a prestige true crime series, Mark’s battle continued. “I was editing a segment about someone who had been an initial suspect [and] was eventually cleared. He was so emphatic that he really didn’t want his name anywhere associated with this case.” After flagging his concern that “this guy has been through the wringer with this case, and here we are doing it again,” the editor did not find a sympathetic ear. “A supervisor said, with a kind of condescending laugh, ‘Wow, that’s very ethical of you,’ and I was disregarded. It really stuck with me.”

The fraught interplay of entertainment value and actual tragedy permeates the relationship with the audience as well. Love Has Won begins with the coldest of opens: police bodycam footage of the discovery of a mummified corpse. Fraase described first seeing that image: “I kind of jumped back. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is a powerful image. And this is going to shock and upset some people.’” Editors cling to these initial reactions as an indication of how a first-time viewer might experience the same piece of footage. But the filmmaking team had to ask, “Is it appropriate to show that kind of thing in what’s ostensibly a piece of entertainment?” For Love Has Won, the conclusion was yes: In a series about the death of a cult leader, this footage was arresting but essential. That balance between drama and tastefulness is sometimes hard to strike. “We can get desensitized and not really be aware of the impact of images,” said Hansen-Fliedner. “That’s where notes from execs and test screenings can be really helpful.”

The mental health toll of true crime

It didn’t set in all at once, but around day two of the cruise I began to experience an ailment that writer Maggie Nelson calls “murder mind”: violent images I faced during the day at an analytical remove began to resurface while I lay alone in my cabin. During a VIP-only session about an ongoing murder investigation, a bloody flash photograph of numerous stab wounds combined with the ocean’s turbulence to pitch me into a new realm of queasiness. Already, I had struggled with repetitively viewing fake gore in CAM, the one horror movie I’ve edited; I could only imagine the effect of viewing real violence in the editing room. 

“You’re mired in the worst aspects of humanity on a day-to-day basis. It has to bleed over into your life,” editor Drew Blatman said. “I would go on a short limb and say most editors are sensitive. That’s how you can weave together an engaging story.” But that sensitivity can make extended exposure to grim material even harder to stomach. After back-to-back true crime series edits, he is taking a break from the genre.

The combined stresses of a fast-paced editing environment and disturbing content can manifest in a variety of ways: post workers described observing or experiencing breakdowns, shouting matches, walkouts and depressive episodes. “How could you not feel devastated every time you’re seeing this?” wondered Walker. Eventually, many editors simply “get desensitized to it, and you can fall into a dark place.”

During editing, the process of repeatedly viewing small excerpts can contribute to the feeling of numbness. “You listen to the same [sound] bite over and over again, deciding to shave off an ‘and’ or add four frames somewhere. The mechanics start to take some of the emotion out of it,” said Edward. But even after growing alienated from the reality represented by the footage, moments of genuine shock break through. “One morning, I had started working, and my coffee hadn’t really kicked in yet. I was watching footage of the store where this woman worked, and then I was like, ‘Oh, holy fuck, there’s her exploded cranium.’” For Edward, that was the inspiration for a pact not to do more true crime—but with so little other work to go around, it remains unclear how long this commitment can last.

For assistant editors (AEs), the emotional toll is often greater. On The Vow, AE Colin Fitzpatrick spent a year logging archival footage. “My job was to watch a gajillion of these tapes and try to figure out what might be interesting to the editors. I’m watching the same seminars that brainwashed these women into deciding to get branded. I’m not necessarily watching gore, but I’d leave the office feeling pretty psychologically messed up. I would get home and not want my husband to touch me.” Fitzpatrick found that an active voice in the editing process helped take the edge off of the upsetting material. “Having some control over how the story is told is what can help get me through it. You can use the editing as therapy in a way.” But this creatively engaged role is rare for AEs, who are typically placed in a position of being passive filters for disturbing material without agency to shape the story.

Some productions do take steps to shield editors from disturbing material. On Last Call, creators Anthony Caronna and Howard Gertler made an early commitment to avoid graphically violent imagery; crime scene photos of corpses were excluded before any editing began. Mia described an archival producer on another project “hiding things so that no one would see them” because they were deemed too upsetting. Even then, someone must act as content moderator, excluding material for others’ sake.

“It was really shocking to me how little awareness there was that this is actually really traumatizing. When police officers see dead bodies, they get mental health care and training,” said Alex. The camera’s optics are no shield against the horrors of a crime scene, but there have been positive developments as editors have spoken out more about the mental health implications of working with heavy content not limited to true crime. Shwer praised the Last Call team for being accommodating if anyone needed time away. Sensitivity to people’s mental health needs starts at the top: “I really try to pass that down as well with AEs,” she said, “keeping that line of communication open so people know that it’s OK to talk about it. And I do think that the next generation is better about their boundaries.” To many AEs in true crime, though, the idea of a “mental health day” is fantasy: With tight schedules and mountains of footage to get through, there is no room for time away without having to pay the price later on.

Editors like Hansen-Fliedner support greater institutional recognition of these issues. “The same way that intimacy coordinators have become normalized on sets, I think that there should be some sort of therapeutic work that’s done with post teams on stories that deal with pretty heavy things.” Indeed, some production budgets and company policies now make allowances for mental health resources for post-production teams. Netflix, for instance, provides a limited number of therapy sessions for editors on certain projects, and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma partners with productions to guide workshops on handling traumatic material—a “great resource” in Blatman’s experience. But to some, even this progress is only a bandaid for a more fundamental issue. “At the end of the day, we’re freelancers without benefits. These are non-union jobs,” argued Fitzpatrick. “A company can say that they’re taking care of mental health all they want. But if they’re not helping you get insurance, they’re not helping you get therapy. These are just material conditions we’re talking about.”

For some, constantly contemplating crime leads to vast shifts in their perception of the world at large. Alex described the climate on their true crime production as “steeped in paranoia.” It was only while working on the show that they “started to realize how prevalent crime was all around me,” which they attribute to a kind of confirmation bias, likening it to spending too much time on the nosy neighbor app NextDoor and concluding, “Oh, my God, my neighborhood is full of machete-toting naked people!” The prevalence of crime stories can create the sense of rampant and rising criminal activity, even though broad statistical trends suggest the opposite.

That paranoia has political significance. Hansen-Fliedner fears that the genre “could be feeding into a drive for mass incarceration” because policing is the presumptive antidote to crime. “I feel like it’s important as we’re making these true crime series not to just feed into ‘copaganda.’” Mark explained that shows often have a cozy relationship with police departments because they depend on law enforcement for access and sometimes even grant police the right to approve episodes before they air. Structurally, these series are designed to privilege law enforcement perspectives and to highlight police functions that are least controversial.

Over dinner, one of my cruise tablemates mused that, for all she knew, a solo male traveler like me could be there to learn how to be a more effective killer. But after a greatest hits tour of prominent arrests and cold cases on the verge of a breakthrough, I was doubtful that I could get away with murder; it seemed that every criminal was destined to be caught. As it turns out, that impression doesn’t match the reality that the clearance rate for violent crimes is at a 30-year low. An arrest or conviction can add dramatic intrigue to a series, though it also “helps reinforce the narrative that prosecutors and cops want to perpetuate, that the system works,” said Mark. “This further strengthens our already steroidal criminal justice system.”

The promise of true crime

With so much true crime being made, filmmakers fight to explain how their series stands out. Several editors mentioned not only how frequently they were approached for such projects, but how the pitches nearly always stressed that they were trying to do something true crime-but-not. Christopher Passig, an editor whose credits include Love Has Won, Telemarketers and The Vow, recalled interviews where “true crime” seemed like “a little bit of a dirty word. So, [the pitch] was, ‘Well, it is true crime, but we’re gonna tackle the nature of truth itself or take on the true crime industry.’ Sometimes, it feels like a preemptive apology.”

Some editors like Shwer lamented that true crime so often gets a bad rap: “I really believe that a lot of these victims really deserve to have their stories told, it’s just [a question of] how we’re telling them. And I feel like there’s an appetite to change how some true crime stories are being told”—thoughtfully, responsibly. HBO’s documentary executives recently introduced a term for this elevated true crime fare: “crime with a conscience.”

When so many filmmakers claim to want to make true crime differently, or with a conscience, what do they mean? Hankin, whose initial inspirations in documentary were crime classics The Thin Blue Line and Brother’s Keeper, is keen to avoid projects that foreground crime for its own sake. “If it’s already been covered in tabloid form, what’s the added value of the project?” The answer could be unique access or recently uncovered evidence that creates new urgency. Coffman acknowledges that an audience might be drawn in by the “outlandish” details of a case like Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop—but it’s more a question of what moral and philosophical dimensions the work explores once the audience is hooked.

For cult shows, a novel stance might be to humanize people who are typically approached from a more judgmental distance. Whereas most cult stories adopt the perspective of “people who were in the cult and have escaped,” Love Has Won appealed to Fraase in part because director Hannah Olson wanted to tell the story through the words of people “who are still very much in that belief system… not trying to make fun of them but trying to get into their perspective.” A similar feature drew editor David Barker, ACE, to Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence: “What [director] Zach [Heinzerling] shot, which I’ve never seen before, is somebody learning to un-brainwash themselves in real time.” For Lessner, working on cult series has provided an opportunity to make documentary psychological thrillers “about the human vulnerability to undue influence.” For her, this interest has an activist intent, educating viewers about “the process of recruitment and indoctrination, [so] we can help people identify those dynamics before they get in too deep.”

Editors wary of the ethics of telling true crime stories often ask about the positionality of the filmmakers in question. A personal tie is presumed to be a good indication of the delicacy with which a filmmaker might handle such a story. For Last Call, telling a serial killer story conscientiously meant an overriding focus on the lives of the victims without foregrounding the killer. The filmmakers “wanted to be looking at how the community was affected,” according to Shwer. The crime aspect was a “Trojan horse” through which they smuggled a much larger investigation of homophobia and systemic failures to protect the most vulnerable. Viewing true crime through this social justice lens places it in a longer tradition. When done well, “crime is interesting because it’s a detective story,” said Barker, who edits both documentary and narrative films. “The detective is a person who gets there too late and has to reconstruct the past. And traditionally, detective stories go in between class structures; they look at the way that society works.” 

If the appeal of true crime is that it allows filmmakers to explore things other than crime, when is the crime aspect actually necessary? I thought of revered films like Paradise Lost and wondered whether such standouts could justify this whole costly business of alchemizing suffering into content. After speaking with numerous editors, I found it hard to determine whether crime was a gripping entry point for deeper truths or lofty themes were convenient cover for a prurient interest in others’ misfortune. It was no easier to tell, at the cruise’s closing night cocktail party, whether I downed my mai tai in the spirit of an unforgettable vacation or out of the need to anesthetize myself to the day’s horrors. To the cruise company, as to a streamer, those motivations are equally good—I’m buying either way. As entertainment companies rapidly consolidate their programming around safe bets, some editors embrace the genre because they see true crime as the surest path to telling human dramas. In Hansen-Fliedner’s words, “true crime is one of the few profitable areas left that allows you to explore non-famous people. It’s what first drew me to docs. If we can keep that tradition alive, I think that’s a good thing.” And if it also sells some cruise tickets, even better.

1 Through editing, Durst’s confession was rearranged to appear clearer in the episode than it was in the raw audio, which made the filmmaking process an issue in Durst’s trial.

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