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MayX Snapshot: The truth behind true crime

Local podcaster and investigative reporter Brad Wills chats with students in a MayX course.
A Zoom chat with Greenville podcaster and investigative reporter Brad Willis was part of the May Experience for students interested in true crime writing.

Each day this week, we’re highlighting a course from May Experience – a chance for students to explore topics beyond the typical academic year.

COURSE: True Crime Writing: Why and How?
INSTRUCTOR: Margaret Oakes, professor of English
OBJECTIVE: Explore the ethics, practices and problems of writing and reading about true crime.

Margaret Oakes’ lesson is straightforward: True crime happens to real people.

The students who signed up for her MayX class are “crime junkies,” she says – fans of podcasts like “Serial” and “My Favorite Murder” and streaming miniseries like “Making a Murderer” and “Don’t F**k with Cats.”

“I wanted to explore why we’re so interested in this and what it says about us,” Oakes says. “It isn’t because we are evil people; it’s because we are following a story that is based in fact but has been created by someone else.”

Professor Margaret Oakes

Knowing who that “someone else” is – and what they want you to think – is critical, she says.

“You have to question all of this, because people have an agenda,” she explains. “It may be a worthwhile one, but it’s still an agenda.”

This May, Oakes’ students were not learning the details of actual sensational crimes throughout history. “That’s the easy part,” she says. “The hard part is figuring out: What am I being told? What am I not being told? Who makes those decisions? How might that affect what I know about this?”

What the students learned instead is how true crime narratives are created – from the ground up, starting with writing a police report based on primary facts in an actual case study with the Greenville Police Department. Their grades depended in part on whether their reports would stand up in court.

The department’s officers and staff volunteered hours of work to lead the students through four days of presentations and tours, including case investigation and forensic evidence. Professor and students were all “immensely grateful” to the GPD, Oakes says.

The students were also tasked with creating a newspaper article (appropriate for public reading) about an ongoing case, as well as a long-form journalistic piece exploring the background and context of past cases that students may not be familiar with, such as the theft of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and the local case of Jenny Zitricki, which involved a multi-state murderer in a cold case solved by the Greenville Police Department through advanced DNA analysis.

The curriculum included books like Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” about the Golden State Killer, and Janet Malcom’s “The Journalist and the Murderer,” a study of the ethics of journalism focusing on the book “Fatal Vision.”

Required listening was the “Murder Etc.” podcast by Greenville reporter Brad Willis, which explores the 1975 murder of a Greenville County narcotics detective and his father. The students also met with Willis to discuss his investigation and his work.

If her students begin to think more critically about the stories that claim to be “true,” Oakes’ MayX course has succeeded.

“This is all you need to know when you get out of here,” she says. “Ask two questions all the time, every day, of everything: ‘What do you mean by that?’ and ‘How do you know that?’”

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