True crime documentaries, podcasts and social media campaigns are bringing new attention to real-world legal proceedings — and are often affecting the outcome.
The evidence? Two men convicted of killing civil rights activist Malcolm X were exonerated last week, shortly after a docuseries titled Who Killed Malcolm X? aired on Netflix. The series brought newfound attention to the case, which was first opened nearly 60 years ago.
Exhibit B: Britney Spears was finally freed from her conservatorship after 13 years, following a massive #FreeBritney movement that swept social media and was popularized via a documentary from The New York Times. The film, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, which aired on Hulu, caused an all-time high in “free Britney” searches, according to Google Trends.
“On social media, real-world cases have become fodder for sweeping social justice movements, often spearheaded by celebrities with millions of followers,” according to Axios, which documents the trend. “New media platforms can instantly put a national spotlight on cases that have long been forgotten or buried under red tape.”
Axios also points to the clemency granted to Julius Jones, just hours before he was set to be executed for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted Jones’ death sentence to a sentence of life in prison.
The decision followed weeks of intense pressure from Kim Kardashian and other celebrities. Kardashian posted Stitt’s email address to her Instagram hours before the decision, urging her 264 million followers to write to the governor about the case. In the last week, there were 279,000 social media posts about Jones’ case, generating up to 1.4 billion impressions, according to data from Keyhole.
The idea of using documentary films to spotlight issues of injustice or other campaign causes is not new, nor is its effectiveness as a medium for shaping real life outcomes.
Errol Morris’ 1988 doc The Thin Blue Line played a huge role in helping to exonerate, in 1989, Randall Dale Adams for the murder of Texas police officer Robert Wood.
The growth of social media and greater exposure on streaming platforms has however amplified the impact of campaigning documentaries.
There is also a genre of documentary filmmaking which aims to bring about real world change. The Doc Society has produced a whole template for how filmmakers can fund, create and market documentaries to influence events on the ground or raise money for worthy causes.
Its mission statement is: “Doc Society believes that documentary film is one of the most effective tools in creating empathy and inspiring people to engage as active citizens at a local, national and international level. To change the way we see the world.”
The Doc Society also funds films. Boycott (2021), directed by Julia Bacha about how boycotts have long been a tool used by Americans from civil rights leaders to anti-apartheid activists rallying for political change. It looks at the cases of a news publisher in Arkansas, an attorney in Arizona, and a speech therapist in Texas whose careers are threatened by the harsh measures of these new laws.
Other recent productions include Hanging On a short spotlighting the strength of community in a British neighborhood united when faced with eviction; Ain’t Your Mama’s Heatwave (2020), directed by Elijah Karriem, which films four Black American stand-up comedians taking the stage to “make the climate crisis funny” in front of an audience at risk for a Hurricane Katrina-like disaster; and Welcome To Chechnya, an Oscar-longlisted piece of investigative reportage about the brutal suppression of human rights in Chechnya.
It’s not always the case that such activism effects outcomes, especially in legal cases. As Axios points out, the podcast series Serial led millions of listeners to question whether Adnan Syed had been wrongly convicted of murder, but the courts ultimately denied him a new trial.
READ MORE: Judge Rules Against Netflix, Says Former Detective’s Defamation Suit Against ‘Making A Murderer’ Can Proceed (Yahoo)
New documentary The Phantom examines holes in the case involving the 1989 Texas execution of Carlos DeLuna for a 1983 murder where police may have confused two Hispanic men. DeLuna is already dead and Texas is showing no signs of ending executions.
And as the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell for sex trafficking begins in New York, there are concerns that the judge and jury have already been prejudiced by constant demonizing of her in the media.
There are few checks on a media that can ruin a person’s reputation even if innocent.
In the UK in 2010, a man was erroneously arrested on suspicion of the murder of a 25-year-old woman. UK newspapers condemned him as the prime suspect before any charges were brought. He later won a libel case for defamatory media coverage of his arrest and his story has been made into a TV drama, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies.