By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Sarah Koenig

‘Serial’ is untraditional, but it’s journalism at its best

The highly acclaimed podcast “Serial” concludes this Thursday. To mark the occasion, longtime journalist Brian C. Jones wrote a guest commentary on Tuesday regarding what he believes are the series’ journalistic and ethical shortcomings. Today I offer my response. — Dan

Sarah Koenig has often been quoted as saying that she doesn’t know how her podcast “Serial” will turn out. And those of us who have listened to every episode understand she still harbors suspicions that her protagonist, Adnan Syed, actually did murder his ex-girlfriend when they were Maryland high school students 15 years ago.

Brian C. Jones makes much of this in his commentary, writing that “Serial” is more voyeurism than journalism. “Without an answer,” he says, “it’s a little like digging up a coffin just to see what’s inside.” Jones offers some strong arguments about ethics and a journalist’s responsibility, but I disagree with his assessment. “Serial” may not be traditional journalism, but it is journalism, and of a rather high order.

Instead of a five-minute piece (a lifetime on radio, even on public radio) looking into a murder case about which questions remain, we’ve been brought inside the journalistic sausage-making factory. Koenig doesn’t know whether Syed killed Hae Min Lee, and we are with her every step as she gropes for answers. We are participants with Koenig; her emotions are ours. Yes, that’s a long way from a wire-service story that begins with the words “Police said.” But does that kind of journalism work anymore? Did it ever?

More important, it’s easy to make too much of Koenig’s uncertainty, as I think Jones has. In fact, she did a lot of reporting — perhaps the bulk of her reporting — before the first episode was uploaded. She’d been at it for a year, and had done several segments for “This American Life” (I confess I have not heard those early pre-“Serial” stories) before the saga of Adnan Syed was spun off.

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From the beginning of “Serial,” it was clear that Koenig seriously doubted Syed’s guilt, even though she didn’t entirely rule it out. Moreover, her reporting revealed there was little or no physical evidence linking the murder to Syed, and that the prosecution’s main witness, Jay, who was Syed’s alleged accomplice, had told wildly inconsistent stories to investigators. As the series has unfolded, we’ve also learned that the timeline prosecutors laid out was close to an impossibility, and that Syed’s lawyer, who was probably seriously ill during Syed’s two trials, made crucial errors. Anti-Muslim animus may have entered into the proceedings as well.

That’s more than enough not just to launch a serious journalistic inquiry but to publish the results. A better way of thinking about the dilemma Jones defines might be to say that Koenig did not know how “Serial” would turn out once her reporting hit the Internet. Of course, she had no way of knowing that her work would become a phenomenon; but surely she understood that people who cared about the case would hear it. Having established doubt — maybe even reasonable doubt — about Syed’s guilt, perhaps her series would result in more evidence coming out. Maybe someone would even identify the real killer, assuming it is not Syed.

On a recent episode Koenig addressed news reports such as this one that Syed had been granted an appeal. It wasn’t so simple, she explained. Syed is at the very beginning of a long road, and he may not get very far. Once someone has been convicted, it is extremely difficult to get that conviction overturned unless there is compelling evidence of innocence. (And even then.) Given the realities of the justice system, the chances of Thursday’s final episode being a blockbuster seem unlikely.

Still, Koenig’s meticulous reporting has raised sufficient doubts about Adnan Syed’s guilt that he may get another chance. Isn’t that what good journalism is supposed to do?

‘Serial’ isn’t journalism. It’s voyeurism. Here’s why.

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

1-Brian%20C.%20Jones%202014.1[3]By Brian C. Jones

“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.

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