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The true crime podcast plagarism scandal

The true crime podcasting community was recently hit by a scandal after one of its most popular offerings, Crime Junkie, was accused of plagiarism. It’s not often that the words ‘scandal’ and ‘podcast’ get put together unless the podcast in question is reporting on one; call it art imitating life, but here we are.

For the uninitiated, Crime Junkie is a weekly podcast hosted by Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat, which sees the pair discuss a different case each episode. In 2018, Rolling Stone listed it as one of the best true crime podcasts of the year. There was even talk of a television series. Now, that legacy is being called into question. 

It started when journalist Cathy Frye wrote a Facebook post that the Crime Junkie hosts had used an award-winning series of articles she wrote in 2003 on the Kacie Woody case for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for their own episodes, without crediting Frye or citing her work as a source at any point. Frye said they not only relied heavily on her work, which included information and interviews that no other media outlet had been able to obtain, but that they also quoted copyrighted work verbatim.  

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. As Variety reported, other people stared following suit with their own claims against the podcast, who said that the women had used their work extensively without any acknowledgement. Buzzfeed covered the story and were contacted by a number of other podcasters who said the same. Robin Warder, host of The Trail Went Cold, has accused Crime Junkie or using his own work almost word for word after he posted a summary of an episode on Reddit.

Speaking of Reddit, the controversy spread there, where others cited their own frustrations with past episodes.  

Crime Junkie responded to the criticism by speedily deleting their old episodes. They then said they were removing any episodes where their sources couldn’t be cited. Variety noted that information citing their sources did appear, but had only been added after the controversy and was rarely quoted in the episode itself.

In her original criticism, Cathy Frye went on to call into question the women’s motives in covering the story at all, saying, 'You said in one of your podcasts that you share these stories in order to reignite interest in old cases. Bullshit. Kacie's murder was solved. Her killer is dead. What you did was simply gratuitous. 

Let’s face it: it’s a criticism most true crime fans have had to reckon with at some point from anyone who doesn’t get the fascination. In this case, though, it goes beyond the question of crime stories as entertainment and highlights the ethics of a podcast that relies on the work of others to create a profitable brand (their website sells merchandise, they have a Patreon and they embarked on a live tour). Flowers has said in the past it was on the way to bringing in seven figures.

Crime Junkie isn’t the first or only true crime podcast to rely on the work of others, especially when the hosts aren’t journalists themselves, reporting on their own investigative work and whose entire style relies on the concept that they’re two friends chatting about crime. However, the scandal is likely to make those same other podcasters think twice about how they use, cite and acknowledge said work.

Despite the subsequent fallout, this isn’t the first time the podcasting community has seen controversy, as anyone who follows Sword and Scale will know. 

In March, 2019 Wondery announced it had dropped the podcast, after its host Mike Boudet posted a misogynistic comment on Instagram, choosing, of all days, International Women’s Day to do so. Boudet posted his own statement, decrying ‘censorship’ and ‘the mob’, which you can listen to, here

It wasn’t the first criticism Boudet had faced. He had a habit of making inappropriate comments to female fans, used recordings of 911 calls without the families’ permission and made derogatory comments towards the mentally ill. A few months later, he returned to hosting Sword and Scale.

Fans of My Favorite Murder might also recall the podcast’s hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark having to shut down their Facebook group after the page’s moderators approved a racist post and then started blocking anyone who complained. Though that has arguably little to do with the podcast itself, the problematic merchandise that arrived soon after (featuring pictures of tepees) did. They were called out, made to apologise and the merchandise was removed. That wasn’t the first time that they have been called out.

Even Serial, the podcast to launch a thousand others of its kind, faced a backlash over everything from its journalistic ethics and host Sarah Koenig’s reporting, to its obsessive fan base. 

In a world where podcasting has replaced blogging in ubiquity, where anyone can put their thoughts to a microphone (the grass roots origins behind such podcast behemoths like MFM, after all) it’s no wonder those with a bigger platform have been called out for their missteps (which in some cases, is putting it lightly). 

The Crime Junkie fallout, though, feels like it’s going to have greater ramifications beyond its own hosts. Many true crime podcasts cover the same cases and in order to do so, will often use the work and research of others, including journalists and even other podcasters. But this case has shown that you can’t do so arbitrarily. Although many of these podcast hosts aren’t journalists themselves, there are still (journalistic) standards to adhere to. Citing your sources is a fundamental start.