The final episode of Serial, the most successful podcast in history, went live at 10.30am GMT on December 18. Twitter reported that offices, train platforms and sidewalks around the world fell silent, as avid fans consumed the last instalment of the breakthrough weekly podcast investigating the real-life murder of Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee.
One question was on everyone’s lips, debated endlessly on social media: would the finale provide a conclusion that was “rewarding” and “satisfying” for listeners?
This desire for a “satisfying ending” to a real-life story poses interesting questions for narrative journalism. It also underlines some of the significant ethical concerns the podcast has raised since going live in October.
Critics have noted, among other issues, that the murder victim’s life is largely absent from the storytelling and that the show speculates on the guilt of individuals who could potentially be identified. The most common ethical complaint about Serial is that it has taken a real-life tragedy and transformed it into entertainment, designed to entertain as much as inform. As the murder victim Hae Min Lee’s brother has written: “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.”
No new issue
While the success of Serial may be unprecedented, the ethical quagmire of transforming true crime into narrative form is far from new. In his seminal In Cold Blood, Truman Capote reworked the grim facts surrounding the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas into a New York Times bestseller. The book was hailed (most notably by Capote) as the first ever “non-fiction novel”. The plot and literary devices kept the reader turning pages, while the knowledge that it was true ignited their fascination.
Except, of course, that In Cold Blood wasn’t exactly true. As soon as the book was published, critics started noticing discrepancies. Capote had misquoted interviews and trial transcripts, created composite characters and invented entire scenes. And many questioned the author’s relationship with the convicted murderers at the heart of his book, suggesting that Capote had been misleading and exploitative.
In her searing indictment, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm takes the critique further, arguing that all journalist-source relationships are exploitative. Malcolm focuses on the reporter Joe McGinniss and his mistreatment of Jeffrey MacDonald, a physician on trial for triple homicide. After winning MacDonald’s trust and confidence, and spending years feigning belief in his innocence, McGinniss published Fatal Vision, in which he depicted the doctor as a murdering, narcissistic sociopath.
Capote and McGinniss are not wild exceptions. Interviewing a number of non-fiction crime writers, John Safran identifies common challenges in transforming ambiguous, murky crime into compelling storytelling – issues surround veracity, double crossing sources and the temptation to pay criminals for their stories.
Placed in this complicated context, Serial has been remarkable for its transparent and ethical reporting. In each episode, presenter Sarah Koenig walks the listener through her reporting process – explaining who she is talking to, respecting requests for anonymity, and openly discussing with the convicted murder Adnan Syed her doubts about his innocence (reassuring the audience their relationship is not duplicitous).
So what makes Serial discomfiting is not necessarily the podcast itself. Instead, it is its reception: the millions of listeners anticipating every development who, some argue, view the characters as protagonists, first and foremost, rather than human beings.
For freelance journalist Brian C Jones, the show is voyeurism rather than journalism. Others feel that Koenig holds back information at times, manipulating the audience to create narrative tension.
But these critiques go far beyond Serial, to the heart of the journalism enterprise. Truth seeking is the cornerstone of professional journalism ethics – and the first articulated value in many ethical codes. The value is stronger still where there is a public interest at stake: in this case, a flawed judicial system and a potentially unsafe conviction. Once a news story goes beyond a brief update, it always becomes an artifice, crafted and shaped by the journalist.
Edward Wasserman, Dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, notes that “we’re in the business of telling stories, but that means converting people’s experiences and realities into narratives”. Given this expectation, Wasserman suggests that a reporter’s ethical obligation is:
To treat people with dignity and respect, to not take liberties, to not pillage their personal lives for no reason, to not take cheap shots, to give them their fair due.
Koenig and her team have certainly done that. Given the historical lapses of the true-crime genre – and the unprecedented success and scrutiny of the Serial podcast – this is, in itself, a significant achievement.
But there is one clear lesson from the podcast’s success. And that is that journalists can no longer control the consumption and repurposing of their work by online audiences. Serial has prompted debate, parody, and endless chatroom discussion. Meta-level podcasts discuss podcasts about the podcast, each adding their own layer of meaning to the text. Most problematically, with thousands of fans acting as amateur sleuths, protecting the anonymity of sources becomes incredibly challenging.
Serial has demonstrated the incredible appetite for, and potential of, non-fiction podcasting. It’s now up to journalists and producers to establish ethical conventions for the medium. The world will be watching – and commenting.
This article was amended on January 3 2015 to correctly attribute the assertion that Serial is voyeurism not journalism. This comment was not made by Dan Kennedy, associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, but by Brian C Jones in a guest post on his site.