Serial: all good journalism is voyeurism – and bad journalism too (but it’s still journalism)

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After reporting on online journalism for some time you tire quickly of people saying “this is not journalism“. On Tuesday Brian C. Jones leveled this accusation at the podcast sensation Serial:

Sarah Koenig, the lead producer and narrator … used the tools of legitimate reporting — the right to public records, access to experts, the goodwill of interviewees, compelling soundbites, stylish storytelling … — to intrude into and disrupt real lives for the fun of it. It’s voyeurism, not journalism.”

Serial follows Koenig as she attempts to get to the bottom of a murder conviction she suspects may be a miscarriage of justice. The fact that she does not know whether it is or not is the basis of Jones’s misgivings:

“Real-life stories hurt the peopled involved … 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.”

I think Jones makes a mistake common to those used to traditional journalistic production practices: firstly to mistake the subject for the purpose; and secondly to misunderstand modern journalism techniques.

It’s not about the case

Koenig’s story is, for me, not about a miscarriage of justice. It uses a suspected miscarriage of justice to report on the justice system and take the listener through the same journey as an investigator or juror: first we think he’s innocent, then guilty, then innocent… You might even say it’s about reasonable doubt.

Koenig does not need to establish a miscarriage of justice to ‘finish’ her story: her story is about problems in the fact that the case was brought at all.

The best episode to understand this is Episode 7, where Koenig talks to Deirdre Enright, a person who works on similar cases professionally (if you skip the ‘story so far’ in the first couple minutes there aren’t really any spoilers here).

In fact, I would go as far as to say this would make an excellent piece of required listening for journalism students.

You might argue that she could have merely done that interview and not the series of podcasts. But the series humanises the issue: it makes us care.

And it gives us an empathy with Sarah (not Adnan) which provides for greater insight. That’s good journalism: not merely getting the information but getting that across to an audience. In this case the biggest on iTunes. As Rabia Chaudry wrote of the episode:

“Sarah and the Serial team have done a remarkable job in presenting a complex story, that no one paid attention to for years, in a compelling and entertaining way. It’s ok to be entertained. But there is no excuse to forget that the stakes here are much higher than our entertainment.”

It’s not about the finished product

The second mistake is to assume all journalism should be ‘finished’.

In reporting on the case of Adnan Syed while she is still chasing down details, Koenig is surely doing what many journalists do: putting information into the public domain in the hope that witnesses, experts, and others might come forward. This is what the Watergate journalists did, for example.

In a networked age that takes on a new dimension, because newsgathering, production and distribution are not distinct. Publishing and distributing – being findable on a story – is part of the newsgathering process. I’ve done it myself. You can call it iterative reporting.

So do the podcasts report on information which is new to the listener? Yes. Do they consider who the audience is in the way they report it? Yes.

Well, that’s journalism. Journalism isn’t the magical or super-important process that many want to make it out to be when they claim that something “isn’t journalism”.

Sure it might be a different kind of journalism to the type that you like. But it’s still journalism.

For another response to Jones see Dan Kennedy’s post.

Good journalism is voyeurism

Which is where we come to the insult: Serial is “voyeurism”.

Voyeurism is a vague term to use, because there are two meanings, and one contaminates the other. The non-sexual type involves being “an enthusiastic observer of sordid or sensational subjects”, as one definition puts it.

Well, that sounds like a job description for most journalists, although we can argue about the ‘enthusiastic’ part.

In fact, if we’re going to describe Serial as voyeurism then you may as well apply the same description to all crime, disaster and celebrity reporting.

Of course being an “enthusiastic observer” can lead to bad journalism as well as good journalism: journalism which invades people’s privacy, or which sensationalises beyond the facts.

This is an ethical judgement – and as it happens I share Jones’s concerns about the ethical issues involved in reporting on Adnan and his family. But only Sarah Koenig will know about the ethical considerations involved there, the discussions had, and the decisions reached.

The alternative to being an ‘enthusiastic observer’ is more worrying than ‘voyeurism’. Journalism which is not passionately curious? Which merely repeats, passively, what has been passed to it?

Now that’s not journalism…

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