What the Serial Podcasts say about journalism in the digital age

It’s a lot easier to get into university to study journalism than it is to get into university to study law.

This is what I’ve been thinking as I listened to the Serial podcasts the last two weeks. Luckily for me, I only discovered that the podcasts, currently the most popular podcast in history, existed about two weeks ago when I read a piece about it in the Guardian, so I didn’t have to wait three months to reach today’s final episode.

I started to listen. It was the audible equivalent of standing by the fridge at 1 am shoveling chocolate cake into my face. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stop. I was addicted, and the more the approach to the podcast disturbed me, the more I was unable to stop listening.

The Serial podcast bothered me on more than one level. For those of you who don’t know, it goes over the murder of Hae Min Lee on 13 January 1999. The ex-boyfriend was eventually convicted and got life, though admittedly even to a lay person the case was not put together well, and Adnan Syed’s lawyer was disbarred soon after.

People keep saying what a good podcast it is. What does that mean, exactly? While the subject matter has been interesting, let’s not forget how utterly sad it is at the same time, and in my opinion it has been badly executed.

First, it’s what I consider some pretty messy journalism. Maybe they teach journalism differently in the US, but I remember a particularly rabid professor, whose classes we all dreaded at Cardiff University, who insisted that you should never be a part of a story. There is no ‘I, me’ etc. That stayed with me unless I’m writing a personal column, or of course, this blog.

With all due respect to Sarah Koenig, maybe she never thought Serial would take off the way it did. I know from my own experience that I tend to be a little sloppy when I’m writing something I don’t think a lot of people will read. The one post on this blog that went viral was littered with mistakes, because I knocked it out, sent it into the internet and didn’t think any more of it until it clocked nearly 80,000 views. I have many other examples of less-than stellar efforts on my part (you could say my entire career in journalism is quite less than supernova levels, which is why my laptop is committing suicide, but that’s another story).

Aren’t we, as journalists, supposed to remain impartial witnesses? It disturbed me that Koenig seemed to so easily take sides. But there were other things that upset me. Here is a terribly sad story, the loss of a brilliant, intelligent, beautiful, funny and kind young woman, a case of possible miscarriage of justice, more than one family torn apart, presented as entertainment. We’re invited to guess along about who did it, and Reddit users have taken this gauntlet and run with it to freak-show proportions.

Next for me is the issue of libel. So many years down the line, people’s names have been dragged up again, which would be fine except that we live in a digital age. Not only have avid fans gone on and published ‘tours’ of the key places involved in the murder, they have tracked down people who took part in the podcast. Creepy doesn’t even cover it. Then there are the Reddit theories, which start placing blame on nearly everyone.

I’m not going to act like I was above it, I’ve also joined in, listening and thinking way too much about it, changing my mind every week about guilt or innocence. There is an episode talking about the case where potential jury members are asked to tell the judge why they should be excused from jury duty on the grounds of inability to remain impartial, and I caught myself thinking ‘I’d have had to do that, being a Pakistani muslim, I’d have had to get myself excused too.’ It’s sad times when we live in a culture where absolutely everything can be packaged up and sold as entertainment.

Whatever happened and wherever the case may go next, this was not journalism. This was entertainment, and we were all hooked. A sad reflection on us. It was also an irritating podcast to listen to at times, and I kept catching myself thinking “The BBC wouldn’t have done it this way.” There was so much pointless banter in between, about shrimp sales, giggling over retracing routes, that I would thinking that considering the gravity of what they were investigating, why weren’t they a little more respectful? The whole Valley girl way of talking, littered with ‘likes’, ‘OMGs’, ‘rights?’, the cadence of sentences rising at the end into a question, I didn’t think grown women talked like that.

I listened to the last episode today. Do I think the person currently doing time is guilty or not? For what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

I don’t care.

Because at the end of the day, the fact remains that a wonderful human being died in terrifying circumstances. All that light, all the promise, the liveliness of her words from her diary, which I don’t know why we were read extracts from, snuffed out. Hae Min Lee was an example of a great person, someone who would have grown up to make a real contribution to the world around her. In the last episode we learn that she made such an impact on her final boyfriend who she dated for only 13 days before her disappearance that he says she changed him forever.

She had the assertiveness and self respect to leave a culturally doomed relationship at just age 17. I know grown women in relationships that are dead-ends, where the other half’s family don’t even know they exist, or refuse to acknowledge they exist, sometimes even after marriage and children. Or women who are happy to accept whatever little shreds of love are thrown their way, existing on the sidelines in contrast to the other, official, culturally approved wife. Here was a teenager who decided she was worth more, and respect to her for considering her own worth in that way.

Millions of people now know her name, and sit picking apart the details of her death over their dinner. Yes, really. How offensive to this young woman’s memory and to her family.

If anything should be learned from Serial, it’s that some territory is sacred. Koenig is not a lawyer, she is a journalist, and by her own admission, she isn’t even a crime reporter or investigative journalist. Given this, I doubt she should have gone trawling through this story, or at least approached it differently.

I got the feeling today that Koenig felt the criticism about her taking sides had caught up with her, and she tried to be a bit more vague in her ending.

Next week we’ll have all moved on to something else, but Hae Min Lee’s family is still missing a beloved daughter. The Innocence Project is now involved, and I really hope that they will finally be able to lay this case to rest. That’s their job after all, and what they were trained for.

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