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What made Serial unique? It admitted journalists are human, too

Posted on 22 December 2014

I’ve finished listening to Serial now, and am onto the Serial thinkpieces (you can find most of the worthwhile ones via Nick Quah’s Hotpod Newsletter, editions 1-12).

Most are full of praise, but there is a fair share of criticism, as well. After reading a few critical pieces, I felt prompted to Tweet this:

A lot of Serial criticisms seem to boil down to journalists who don’t want the public to know journalism is practiced by normal people.

— Andrew Kurjata (@akurjata) December 22, 2014

At the risk of creating straw-men, I’m going to divide the issues people have with Serial into four main themes.

  1. Serial is voyeuristic, because it took an old case about people’s personal grief and reopened it for the entertainment of others
  2. Serial is irresponsible, because it reported in realtime, rather than doing all the research and then presenting a finished package
  3. Lots of other important things happen. Why spend so much time on this one case?
  4. Serial isn’t journalism, or is shoddy journalism, because Sarah Koenig put herself and her doubts at the center of the story

My issue with these arguments isn’t so much that they aren’t valid, but that it’s unfair to lob them against Serial without simultaneously making the charge against virtually all forms of journalism.

1. Serial is voyeuristic, because it took an old case about people’s personal grief and reopened it for the entertainment of others

Let’s take point one: how many newscasts, newspaper headlines, and Tweets do you read in any given day that are about someone’s personal grief? Two die in car crash. Murder victim’s family begs for information. Those aren’t fake people dealing with those things- they are literally people who just lost someone in their lives. And we blast that information out, reporters ask for quotes, video cameras are on the scene.

Journalism is inherently voyeuristic: it’s the act of reporting the facts of other people’s lives for others to consume. The standard line is that it’s ok so long as what’s reported is for the public good.

Unfortunately, what’s in the public good is not written in stone. Is it in the public good to know what political leaders say in private conversation? Is it in the public good to know whether celebrities are engaged in borderline legal activity? Is in the public good to find out whether a man whose been in prison for the last fifteen years was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit? I’d argue that if we use your average news cycle as a standard, Serial had more potential to be in the public good than much of what’s out there.

Which brings us to criticism two:

2. Serial is irresponsible, because it reported in realtime, rather than doing all the research and then presenting a finished package

I’ve got to say I find this one the most bizarre. Most journalism is presented in realtime. When media outlets started covering Ferguson, they didn’t know whether the army would be called in, what eyewitnesses would say, whether the case would go to trial. They just started reporting on what was happening and then when new developments opened up, they reported on those as well.

I suppose part of the reason people might expect Serial to be wrapped up ahead of time is that the case is fifteen years old so, presumably, all of this research could have been done first without having to wait for new information to come forward. But I also think that’s unfair.

I can easily imagine a “normal” treatment of this story. A newspaper headline says “15 years on, questions still linger in murder case”. The basics of the story would have been there: the disappearance, the body, Syed’s ongoing insistence that he’s innocent. The whole thing could have been wrapped up in a package in a few days. And we would never hear about the reporter making a new discovery because we would never hear from the reporter on the case again- they’re onto the next thing.

Koenig and her team spent a full year on this story. In doing so, they unravelled many more threads and communicated a much deeper understanding than the one-off article would have. That it wasn’t all wrapped up nicely is, I think, a lot more honest about the way the world works, and it allowed them to be more thorough than 99% of the journalism out there.

3. Lots of other important things happen. Why spend so much time on this one case?

I’ve seen this more than once- the question of what is so significant about this case that it deserves so much digging, so much research, so much attention. Koenig herself addresses this question in episode one:

“If you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is this is the one that came to me. It wasn’t halfway across the world or even next door. It came right to my lap. And if I could help get to the bottom of it, shouldn’t I try?”

I doubt there’s a journalist alive who hasn’t had someone question why they are wasting their audience’s time with some story or another. Some people hate hearing about politics. Others don’t get why you would cover anything- anything- except climate change.

The fact of the matter is there isn’t some universal hierarchy of importance out there. We can’t say empirically, “ok, yeah, there’s not enough beds in the homeless shelter down the street, but that is less important than the fact that women are being murdered at higher rates than men which is in itself less relevant than the latest international trade discussions.” There are a lot of important stories, and they are important to different people for different reasons, and unimportant to other people for other reasons.

Why do you spend your time one way when there are any number of other ways you could be spending it? Why do you donate to this charity instead of that one? It’s the same limitation faced by journalists choosing stories, especially when you’re choosing one story to focus on for a twelve episode podcast: you’re going to have to do it at the expense of something else.

And there’s a nice segue-way into criticism four:

4. Serial isn’t journalism, or is shoddy journalism, because Sarah Koenig put herself and her doubts at the center of the story

I’ll admit it isn’t standard for a reporter to publicly share her process- the false trails, the doubts, the back-and-forth about whether you’re doing the right thing. But I’d also warn you against a journalist who doesn’t have these moments of doubt. No one is completely unbiased, and the best defence against letting your biases affect your reporting is to be aware of them, and to challenge them. It’s the same with knowledge: the wisest thing you can do is admit your ignorance.

Would I want this style of reporting to leak into every piece of news I read or heard? No, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opening the curtain on the sausage factory of how journalism works once in a while, either. We’re certainly happy to pull up the curtains on other professions, why not our own?

* * *

Like other journalists, the Serial team dealt with the real world. In the real world, memories are faulty, lies can be told, biases are inherent, doubts are cast, and mistakes are made. What made them unique is that they admitted those rules apply to journalists, as well.

Filed under: journalism

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