The Biggest Mystery in Netflix’s What Jennifer Did Isn’t Even the Murder

The latest Netflix true crime documentary, What Jennifer Did, may have committed a cardinal sin of non-fiction storytelling.

A black and white image of Jennifer Pan in the Netflix documentary What Jennifer Did.
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Netflix’s What Jennifer Did.

The true crime documentary business stays booming. Long a mainstay of both network and cable television, true crime documentary films and docuseries have increasingly gained a foothold in the streaming world as well.

Premier streamer Netflix has been particularly fond of the engaging (and inexpensive) format, churning out many new true crime efforts each month. At first glance, Netflix’s latest doc, What Jennifer Did, is your standard fare.

The 90-minute documentary from director Jenny Popplewell recounts the chilling real life case of Jennifer Pan. On Nov. 8, 2010, Jennifer called 9-1-1 to report that three masked men had invaded her family’s Markham, Ontario home and shot her dad Huei Hann Pan and her mom Bich Ha Pan as part of a botched robbery. Bich ultimately died from her injuries while Hann narrowly survived after a lengthy coma.

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When investigating the crime, it quickly became clear to police that there was something off with Jennifer Pan. Her grief came across as inauthentic and she confessed to forging report cards from school and lying to her parents about attending university. After Hann woke up from his coma and reported hearing his daughter talk to the home invaders in calm tones, police eventually arrested Jennifer for the murder plot.

It’s as tragic and twisty a story as you’re likely to see in the true crime world. Thanks to the Netflix’s poor handling of one aspect in particular, however, the murder itself isn’t the biggest news item to come out of the documentary’s release.

Does What Jennifer Did Use AI to Doctor Photos?

Four days after What Jennifer Did premiered on April 10, Futurism reported that several photos of Jennifer Pan included the documentary appeared to have been manipulated by artificial intelligence. The photos appear prominently around the 28-minute mark and recur again (albeit less prominently) around the 43-minute mark and the 71-minute mark. You can see the images in question below, as first identified by Futurism and compiled by several other outlets.

Of the three photos, the first one with Jennifer extending two peace signs appears to be the likeliest to have used AI as it features many of the telltale signs: a grainy background, mangled fingers, and a shoulder at an unnatural angle.

The other two photos bear AI hallmarks as well. In the third image, Jennifer’s front teeth are mismatched in a way they are not in any other photo, though it’s possible that she received a corrective dental procedure at some point. Netflix also chose this image to accompany its poster for the documentary and it would be pretty bold to use an AI-altered photo there.

We are unable to definitively conclude that artificial intelligence was used on any imagery presented in the documentary. The evidence for AI in at least the first Jennifer photo is quite compelling though. If What Jennifer Did indeed used AI to any degree without disclosure, it would be a massive violation to documentary filmmaking principles. The whole point of true crime is for it to be “true.” Altering a photo in any way without acknowledgement should be considered a cardinal sin that calls the rest of the documentary into question even for a seemingly minor infraction like this.

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The first appearance of these photos in the documentary occurs right after Jennifer’s childhood friend Nam Nguyen describes her as “bubbly, happy, confident, and very genuine.” By immediately cutting to a doctored photo featuring inhuman fingers, unnaturally splayed in peace signs, What Jennifer Did allows for the possibility that it’s trying to manipulate the audience’s perception of Jennifer in a favorable way. Granted, the doc probably isn’t aiming to do that given that it uses the same photos again under different circumstances but it’s playing a dangerous game anyway.

There’s a reason why journalistic enterprises disallow the use of AI in photos or any doctoring beyond a simple Photoshop cleanup. Any level of undisclosed manipulation calls the ultimate truth into question. That’s why the Associated Press retracted those infamous photos of Kate Middleton and it’s why Netflix true crime documentaries had better be sure to leave AI out of their photos going forward.

What Jennifer Did is available to stream on Netflix now.