It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished listening to the Serial podcast series, and I’m still grappling with my feelings about the story while praying that the unknown date for the beginning of the 2015 series is soon.
For those who are unfamiliar, Serial is an investigative story told over 12 weeks. The spin-off of This American Life began in October 2014. All 12 episodes are available now, thank goodness. I don’t know how I would have waited a week between each podcast.
The series is about the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in Baltimore. Adnan Syed, her former boyfriend, was arrested and convicted of her murder. He remains in jail.
I was chatting on Facebook about my love for the series when a friend from college pointed out that the journalism in the series was questionable. She said she’d read an interesting article about the journalistic aspects. She thought, as a journalism professor, it might interest me.
Admittedly, I thought a lot about the journalistic approach when listening to the podcast. So, after this discussion, I set out to read everything I could critiquing the podcasts’ journalism and Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer.
Proponents of Serial say it’s proof that good journalism can still captivate online audiences, even for long stretches of time.
Opponents say Koenig editorialized too much, was overly involved in the story and used journalistic tools to disrupt people’s lives for entertainment.
I tend to agree with Joyce Barnathan’s column in Columbia Journalism Review.
The difference in the way Koenig reported this story and what the public is used to is that she showed the sausage being made.
As Barnathan wrote:
For journalists listening to the series, Koenig does what we all do, all the time. We find an interesting topic and pursue it with great skepticism. Our goal is to bring to the public insights and understanding that people wouldn’t otherwise have. In some cases, our work has the potential for tremendous impact, as it does in this case. If she uncovers that Syed is indeed innocent (after spending 15 years in prison), his life could change dramatically.
What Koenig does that we don’t normally do is share our thoughts and views as we research a story. Normally we do all that work before publishing. We give our audience the most intelligent assessment we can. We go through the same hard work of interviewing and researching as Koenig—and we suffer through the same anxieties and soul searching. The difference is, we never make that work public. She breaks new ground because she makes journalism more transparent—and in my view, adds tremendous credibility to our field.”
There were times when I was listening to Serial that I was surprised Koenig was inserting so much of her own opinion. But there never were times when I questioned what was opinion or fact. She did a wonderful job of separating her views from what she knew for sure.
Koenig telling the story also gave it more credibility for me. I’ve been there and done that. I’ve strategically, analytically deconstructed a case, with the ultimate goal of finding the truth. My view of the truth has changed multiple times during that process. Koenig’s journalistic approach (gathering documents, interviewing sources, field experiments, etc.) was what made the story credible at all for me.
Koenig took what some consider a dying medium (radio), added a transparent approach to long-form investigative journalism (which many news agencies no longer support because of the expense and staff time/productivity it requires) and created a more than six-hour journalistic series that people wanted to listen to.
In fact, I initially heard about Serial from my students, a group of the population generally thought to ignore the news unless it comes to them via social media.
I’m not sure how we can consider Serial anything but a journalistic success. Sure, it may not be the type of journalism we’re use to, but why is that a problem?
Personally, I can’t wait for the 2015 series.
I agree with you here. The problem that I see with typical stories regarding cases such as Syed’s is that we are accustomed to, and virtually reliant on, hearing them through the mediums of print or television. What made Koenig’s story so special was that the podcast medium allowed her a freedom to give her opinions to the listener side by side with the facts of the story. In print journalism a reporter saying “I’m not sure I trusted him when he said this,” or “something about our interaction seemed fishy,” is immediately seen as being unprofessional because it gives the consumer of the media ideas and opinions that they might not come to naturally when simply reading the facts of a case. A part of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics states that journalists should “provide context [and] take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.” This part of the code of ethics is often over looked in print and broadcast journalism when it is assumed that the reader is looking for the “reader’s digest” version of the story. While this may be true some of the time, Koenig found a story that captivated both her’s and listeners’ attention, and, through speaking her opinion on the facts, was able to involve consumers to an extent that has not been seen in quite some time.
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matt_harrill profkrg i listened to it on road trip to Fla very good
JustisHudd I agree, Justis, that we just aren’t used to having stories presented in this way, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I found the transparency refreshing, actually. It seems like you did too. I wish they would just start the next season, for crying out loud!