Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The complicated ethics of Serial

Like millions of people worldwide, I listened to the Serial podcast. I was troubled by elements of it and this article by Jessica Goldstein for Think Progress methodically and brilliantly addresses a number of ethical reservations with the format.

That said, I was captivated by it as a piece of story-telling journalism. Non-journalists probably found it most compelling for its novel glimpse into the anatomy of an investigation. The process of investigating a story is the most interesting and rewarding part of being a journalist. Journalists found it compelling to hear how another reporter attacked a story and tried to uncover the truth. Unfortunately that novelty factor will wear thin. You only need one vehicle to open up that insight into all the attendant dilemmas of journalism: How do you get to the truth? What is factually verifiable? What evidence is recoverable? Who can you trust? How do you assess the motivations and trustworthiness of your interviewees? How do you account for the malleability of memory?

Still, Serial fulfilled that role and attracted a huge audience by doing so.

I had no problem with Sarah Koenig’s personal style of reportage. It acknowledges the truth that journalists are human beings. She was open about her investigation, her dead–ends, her doubts, and her involvement in the story whilst trying to discover the truth of who killed Hae Min Lee.

I was also interested to read Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s exclusive interview with key witness Jay for The Intercept – though it annoyed me that The Intercept published it in three parts. And the New York Observer revealed that Vargas-Cooper got the interview because Jay’s lawyer was frustrated with his client’s depiction in Serial and Jay had decided it was time to tell his side of the story. The podcast may have finished, but the story will run and run and maybe, eventually, the truth will out.