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  • FTC

Let’s talk about NBC’s Dateline and ABC’s 20/20

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

I am an avid follower of both Dateline and 20/20. You will frequently find me listening or watching an episode at the gym, when surfing the web, or during my downtime before bed. I am not alone; these rival shows are immensely popular with audiences around the world. Dateline is on its 30th season1 and 20/20 boasts a whopping 45 season run2, forming a significant slice of American popular culture. In light of this, my goal is to take a step back, put feelings aside, and try to objectively answer the question, “are these True Crime shows good”? The greatest strength of Dataline and 20/20 is access to authority figures and the prison system, largely because of the popularity, reputation, and longevity. All episodes heavily feature interviews by police, attorneys, experts, and often the accused or convicted. The detail gleamed from these interviews supplement the thorough analysis of the investigation and/or trial obtained from official records or media reports. This is particularly fascinating for those with an interest in law and order. It is undeniable that Dateline and 20/20 honor crime victims and acknowledge the pain of those affected by these terrible acts. Each episode includes a biography of the person or persons involved and interviews with family and friends whose lives have been touched by the victim(s). Both shows are ultimately about people and not just crime statistics which is refreshing if you consume a lot of True Crime content. Moreover, most of these cases are isolated incidents which would never be in the media spotlight if not for Dateline and 20/20. Spreading awareness, for example, on how to spot signs of domestic abuse, may help to save a life. Despite the strong points in Dateline and 20/20’s favor, there are two issues which cannot be ignored. The first is the propensity of reporters/hosts to “lead the witness” during interviews. This can potentially undermine the interview process because subjects may simply agree to a catchy quote instead of expressing their true feeling and opinions. The second is the disproportionate number of episodes featuring white, heteronormative, middle class or higher individuals. Although there are exceptions, representation and diversity are not high on the priority list for these programs and this significantly impacts their relevance and relatability. I would be remiss to not address the elephant in the room, the entertainment aspect of all True Crime. As with any long-running series, the producers of Dateline and 20/20 have one main goal, to continue making money through viewership. One way this is accomplished is by presenting cases which are sensational. This is not necessarily problematic if backed by solid, objective reporting. However, both Dateline and 20/20 are guilty of crossing the line into tabloid territory by speculating about motives or sharing rumors/details which have little bearing on the case at hand. FTC places a high value on respecting victims, relevance, transparency, and solid reporting to assess the quality of True Crime content. When I reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of Dateline and 20/20 outlined above, I am still torn. Some episodes check the “good” category boxes more in than others, but I do know one thing for certain...I’ll be tuning in next week. 

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