The highly acclaimed podcast “Serial” concludes this Thursday. To mark the occasion, I’m pleased to present this commentary by veteran journalist Brian C. Jones on what he believes are the series’ journalistic and ethical shortcomings. Tomorrow I’ll respond. (And here it is.) — Dan
“Serial” may be a podcast phenomenon, but almost from the beginning I’ve thought of it as flawed journalism.
Sarah Koenig, the lead producer and narrator, acknowledged when the episodes began that she didn’t know the outcome; she’d done considerable digging, but her investigation wasn’t finished.
That’s a problem.
A developed story like this obligates the reporter to know — before going public — why it’s worthwhile, other than it’s “interesting.” Without an answer, it’s a little like digging up a coffin just to see what’s inside.
Unfolding in weekly segments every Thursday, the story is about the 1999 murder of a Maryland high school student. Her ex-boyfriend, convicted and imprisoned for the slaying, says he’s innocent. Koenig says a friend of the defendant asked her to revisit the case.
A podcast follower can be excused for jumping to the conclusion that Koenig might answer the he did it/he didn’t do it question. The episodes are so detailed and skillfully told that it’s obvious Koenig has tapped a rich lode of material, suggesting that “Serial” has the potential to refute or confirm the jury’s verdict.
But Koenig never promised a “Perry Mason” ending, only that listeners would accompany her on a journey of exploration: about the case, about the criminal-justice process, about the effort required of journalists and nonfiction storytellers.
What’s wrong with that? One thing is that real-life stories hurt the peopled involved, at least some of them. Just being in the spotlight can be excruciating; details are inevitably embarrassing; wounds will be reopened; doubts created; reputations roughed up.
Actual people and their lives are not figures to be marched around a Clue board, not answers to 4-Down in a crossword puzzle, not characters in a video game.
Last week Koenig read from a letter from the defendant saying that his psyche has been bruised by her persistent questioning of his character. I imagine some prosecutors, cops and others whose work has been scrutinized feel the same.
I’m not saying that a reporter should know where she wants a story to go when she begins it — of course the facts should determine the outcome. I’m not saying that ambiguity has no place in journalism — most stories are complex and confounding.
My objection is that when the reporting phase is exhausted, it’s crucial to understand what kind of a story it is, and maybe whether it is a story at all. At the very least, the writer has to be honest with listeners as to the “why” of the story.
Koenig said the story will end with Thursday’s episode. Maybe she’s gotten lucky and “Serial” will conclude with a bombshell; millions of downloaders will cheer; and Koenig will be hailed as the industry disrupter who popularized podcast storytelling.
For me, that won’t get her off the hook, since she never knew what would happen.
Instead, she used the tools of legitimate reporting — the right to public records, access to experts, the goodwill of interviewees, compelling soundbites, stylish storytelling and the credibility of “This American Life,” from which “Serial” was spun off — to intrude into and disrupt real lives for the fun of it. It’s voyeurism, not journalism.
Brian C. Jones, a freelance journalist, worked 35 years for the Providence Journal, including a stint as the paper’s media reporter. Later, he was a contributing writer for the now-defunct Providence Phoenix and wrote histories of three hospitals in Rhode Island.
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary erroneously stated that the defendant’s mother asked Koenig to review the case.
5 thoughts on “‘Serial’ isn’t journalism. It’s voyeurism. Here’s why.”
A factual note: It wasn’t Syed’s mother who flagged Koenig on the story – it was a family friend, Rabia Chaudry.
While I have sympathy for the family of the victim and the defendant with respect to the pain of being in the spotlight, I think this criticism is off the mark. To condemn a journalist for scrutinizing the work of police and prosecutor, and for the discomfort that’s caused, is to condemn accountability journalism. It’s never comfortable when done well, it shouldn’t have to be. Public officials – both the law and society in general agree – are and must be subject to greater scrutiny.
As to the harm caused by Adnan – you’re right, it is difficult. But (guilty or not) he was convicted of killing a girl. Is that not more harmful to his reputation or emotional health than anything Koenig ever could do.
Journalists spend every day asking difficult questions and making people uncomfortable. Much of the time, especially for investigative journalists, this never pans out. That’s okay. The only real difference between that and what Koenig has done here is that the things that don’t pan out generally don’t go public, because it would require far too much ink or air time or pixels to say “we checked this out and there are a bunch of caveats but we still have questions.” But this is a podcast dedicated to exactly that, and Koenig openly acknowledges the weaknesses in what she’s found as well as the emotional difficulty involved in this digging – the post mentions Koenig’s own disclosure as evidence against her.
To say it’s not journalism because there isn’t a clear “why” is overly simplistic. Journalism is about creating a more informed public and moving conversations forward, and Koenig has done that.
My take on this is that she took the “48 Hours” model and strung it out across another media. Quo vadis? She does, first and foremost. She’s now an expert on this case, she has a following, and an appeal may follow based on new evidence that either comes from her digging or the public. No matter, she wins in the ka-ching category. As to those who feel used by her, they had the power to say no. Unlike the subjects in a cold case, where everyone usually is dead before someone gives their case the open-ended police procedural treatment, these people are alive. Clearly, they feel cheapened. Wonder what they expected to get out of cooperating with her? Were promises made and not kept? Often, people who suddenly find themselves in the eye of a media hurricane will feel abandoned when the spotlight passes. Whatever great event caused them to be news usually separates them from family, friends, their normal routine. Reporters are their “friends” for awhile, and then they’re alone to pick up the pieces of their lives. Almost as bad as winning the lottery!
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This feels harsh. It’s a good idea to try different approaches to journalism, especially with a newish medium like this. I think there’s a danger in insist on limiting the array of possible ways to present, pursue, and tell stories; she obviously struck a nerve here with millions of people who are now learning about criminal justice.
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