Is ‘Serial’ Journalism?

December 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

In a word: Yes.

(Note: If you don’t know what Serial is – first of all welcome to the Internet – and come back in 10 hours when you’ve finished listening.)

I’m putting this here because I think Serial’s success has perked up a lot of journalists’ ears (especially if they are, like me, in radio) and made them think about what they can take from Serial and apply to their own work.

Media critic (and my former professor) Dan Kennedy posted a commentary on his blog by journalist Brian C. Jones that makes an interesting argument that Serial isn’t journalism because it launched before the journalist involved – This American Life’s Sarah Koenig – knew what the outcome would be.

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.

Jones’ problem, he writes, is that Koenig is one episode away from the conclusion of her look into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and it seems likely she won’t have a “He did it!” or “He’s innocent!” conclusion to cap it all off. Not doing so, he argues, just causes a lot of harm to everyone involved in the case and doesn’t really accomplish anything. Therefore, he says, it’s voyeurism and not journalism.

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 disagree with the argument that this disqualifies Serial from being journalism.

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 Jones’ 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. Accountability journalism is never comfortable when done well, and it shouldn’t have to be. Public officials – both the law and society in general agree – are and should be subject to greater scrutiny.

As to the harm caused to Adnan by digging into this case – Jones is right, it must be 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? Does the outcome of her reporting (or lack thereof) somehow retroactively change the calculus here?

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. But is it suddenly not journalistic work if they then publish their findings, painstakingly taking the time to note all the things they’re not sure about.

The only real difference between investigative reporting 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 criticism 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.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Jones.

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