A&E’s The First 48: ruining innocent people’s lives or just documenting reality?

On its web site, A&E says its reality series The First 48 “takes viewers behind the scenes of real-life investigations as it follows homicide detectives in the critical first 48 hours of murder investigations, giving viewers unprecedented access to crime scenes, interrogations and forensic processing.”

But a pair of stories argue that by documenting botched investigations, the TV show has also ruined the lives of some people accused of crimes during those 48 hours. That’s because the show lives on in repeats, and accused people have been tarred as guilty for the rest of their lives, even if they’ve been exonerated.

That argument is made by The Houston Press’ investigation by Terrence McCoy and Craig Malisow, which follows a Miami New Times report by McCoy. Both stories document investigations that involved bad police work or bad evidence, such as witnesses who later recanted.

That puts the show in an ethically gray area as it documents reality. While the eventual outcome may have been very different, the episodes that followed those cases present an accurate depiction of the investigations’ first few days.

The First 48 has a disclaimer, which an A&E spokesperson points out in the story. “We simply film the investigations as they unfold. Every episode states clearly that all individuals are innocent until proven guilty,” the spokesperson said.

Some who see the show, however, can be convinced of the person’s guilt, and do what all sane people do: go online and leave comments consisting of incoherent sentences demanding the death penalty and/or declaring what scum the accused person clearly is, even if that person turned out to be innocent.

Cameron Coker, an 18-year-old who was falsely accused and spent nearly three years in prison before being released after witnesses recanted (and it was revealed that prosecutors kept evidence about other suspects from the defense), says, “Just imagine the image they made out of me. Even when I walk places I’ve never been, people know me from The First 48 without really knowing what happened.”

The paper’s investigation notes those “[n]early every person charged with murder belongs to the same demographic: young, male, black, urban, poor and without the resources to challenge a television conglomerate like A&E.”

Even more damningly, The Houston Press story argues that “[e]vidence suggests that the television show puts undue pressure on police departments to hurry their investigations and make quick arrests.” In Detroit in 2010, the show’s crew asked police to help them create “great video footage” and a “good show.” That never-aired episode filmed a seven-year-old being killed when cops shot into a house–the house next door to the one they intended to raid.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.