19/ 12/ 2014

To love and to hate Serial the podcast

*Spoiler Alert* There’s a lot of debate over Serial now that it’s over, mostly between people who love it and people who hate it. The debate isn’t dissimilar to the way Americans either love or hate soccer–you sit down for a 90-minute game that you hope could be the most satisfying goal-fest of your life, but in the end could turn out to be 0-0. Was the emotional roller-coaster worth it, or do you have a right to be mad?

Of course, Serial is more serious because it involves a homicide and many people who are emotionally connected to the victim and defendant, not to mention the alleged murderer himself, who continues to insist upon his innocence and started this process hoping that this investigative reporter would somehow help him prove it.

I could dissect the evidence presented or talk for ages about whether or not I was convinced by his side of these story, as presented in the podcast, but Sarah Koenig already did that, and here’s the thing: IT DOESN’T MATTER. And that’s what pisses me off the most about this non-conclusive exercise in investigative journalism. It was meaningless!

As soon as Koenig realized early on in the process that the police seemed to have done all their due diligence, and that the defense attorney seemed to have tried her best, it became a pure-entertainment story that was either going to free a possibly-innocent man, or not. If it DID, that would have been amazing. But since it didn’t, well … we basically just wasted 12 hours of our lives listening to this reporter chase her tail, and countless more hours discussing something unresolvable. Some people might think that’s fun, but ain’t none of the rest of us got time fo dat shit!

She seems aware of this, because she tries to explain it a bit in the first episode when she tells us that the only reason why she picked this case was because it fell into her lap, that someone contacted her about it. But while I buy that this case could have been the inspiration for Serial, a podcast following the blow-by-blow of a journalist’s investigation, that doesn’t mean that it had to be followed through once she realized it wasn’t a very worthy case. I know this because I have worked in the media and I’ve worked very hard in the pursuit of stories I wanted badly to be huge which in the end weren’t stories at all. It’s frustrating, but it’s reality. We can either sit around and cry about lost time, or accept that it’s part of the job and hunt down the next lead.

I need to say here that depending on the correlation of her timing in the investigation to the actual airing of the podcast, Koenig may not have had a choice. I mean, she may have realized halfway into broadcasting that she was on a fool’s errand, at which point she was already committed to many many listeners and it was too late. But that didn’t seem like the case–the podcast was 12 weeks long and her investigation was over a year in the making, which means that she should have known early on that the significance of her investigation was shaky to non-existent, and yet she chose to continue investigating this particular case anyway.

Anyway–I don’t actually hate her for that, because this is, after all, a new format and it would have been impossible to get it perfect the first time. She also deserves props for this format, and for being able to deliver the podcasts in such a way that got people actually interested in the process of investigative journalism. Kudos to her.

But I think this raises a very traditional question in journalism that should be used to determine the topic for the next season of Serial, a question that comes up very, very often in practice: what is the point? Every news organization and individual reporter has finite resources to investigate something, be it time or money. As such, it is always necessary before embarking on a major investigative project to ask ourselves WHY we are doing it, and whether it’s worth it.

The best investigative journalism isn’t just told in a great narrative, it aims to have meaning. And if a story DOESN’T have significance outside of the story itself, it had better be a really f*cking entertaining one. Adnan’s case had the makings of an entertaining story, but no significance … and in the end, also failed to be entertaining. Why? Because it was building to a non-existent climax, and every good story needs a climax. Meanwhile, it wasn’t even poetic in its lack of conclusion–there are entire navel-gazing episodes where Koenig goes on and on about the tug of war in her own head which seem to serve no purpose other than tormenting everyone involved.

Without significance, a climax or a conclusion, and since Adnan’s story is a real-life story, what we’re left with at the end of the first season of Serial is a year-long mental torture of a man who’s already in prison, and of his family and friends, followed by the 12-week emotional torture of Hae Min Lee’s family, who had to relive the case again, for nothing. That doesn’t seem worth it at all. It even seems cruel. I hope that with the next Serial, or for any other investigative journalist or news organization who decided to explore this format, that they ask the same questions they would ask themselves about a traditionally-presented piece of investigated journalism. Keeping in mind that, when starting out, it’s possible that it will be inconclusive–and if it is, would it still have been a worthwhile story to tell, or at least to pursue?

Personally my suggestion would be for Koenig to look just two steps beyond the subject matter she has already immersed herself in, and talk to the lawyers she met through this case about other cases that are more emblematic; cases in which people may or may not be innocent, but which give their listeners some insight into our highly problematic justice system. There are organizations that work on this everyday, like the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which are gold mines of resources for her in terms of cases that could use the publicity. Some could be just as compelling as Adnan’s case, if not more, because they expose broad, persistent problems in America that need to be fixed. With more attention than ever being paid to the justice system today, a widening wealth gap and deteriorating race relations, this seems like great timing for exploration.

Or if not this specific topic of interest, any other topic would be fine–so long as there is an answer to that one simple question of why does this matter? In print journalism, we call that a nut graf.

Many non-journalists will criticize me for suggesting this, and say that entertainment need not be significant. But I’m giving this recommendation as a person who knows that the desire for impact is a driving force behind great, detail-oriented, smart and innovative journalists like Koenig. At the end of the day, she isn’t a movie director, but a reporter who has stumbled on a new format with amazing potential. And most of us reporters–the good ones, anyway–want our work to mean something. I hope Koenig’s next effort on Serial does.

So my conclusions (oh yes, I have some): 1. There was clearly reasonable doubt in Adnan’s case, whether he actually committed the murder or not. This much, Koenig seems right about. 2. The success of this format in and of itself made Serial a worthwhile endeavor, no matter HOW unsettled we feel about the ending. And 3. There seems to be at least some productive journalism that has resulted from the whole exercise, i.e. calling attention to Global Tel-Link, one of the many private companies that profit from mass incarceration in the U.S.: Serial’s $2,500 Phone Bill and the Prison-Calling Racket I sincerely hope that this continues.

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I'm a 30-something multimedia creator from New York. I do videos on Youtube centered on open discussion and co-mentorship. Once a month, I host a Q&A with inspiring people from entrepreneurs to athletes and more on The itsme Podcast. Be warned: I can be opinionated. But it's all love! Please follow and subscribe, it would mean a lot! :)

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