‘The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.’
– Oscar Wilde
Anyone who’s heard it will tell you, Serial is royally good. If you haven’t gotten amongst the podcast and I thoroughly recommend you do so, here’s the deal: Over the duration of what is (at the time of writing) currently sitting at seven podcasts, Sarah Koenig, an American journalist examines an enigmatic murder trial that took place in Baltimore in 1999. Each week Koenig chooses a facet of the case, picks it up, examines it in detail, distills it into a podcast and drip feeds it to a growing audience that can now only be described as ravenous.
But the truly fascinating thing about Koenig’s podcast is that it’s probably one of the most important things to happen to journalism in decades.
The podcast is, in essence, a variation of the long form investigative piece. However rather than presenting a meticulously well-researched conclusive deduction as to what is “the truth”, we are riding along with our reporter. She is the lens through which we examine the story. Her thought process, confusions and conflict is presented to us as part of the narrative and it’s goddamn compelling. In fact it’s so compelling, that I’ve had to remind many that despite it’s well-presented nature, it is in fact form of journalism.
How ethical can that really be?
Koenig is a master. She respects and understands the power behind what she’s doing and she understands responsibility.
The podcast, in it’s current state has concluded nothing, neither serving to exonerate the accused nor point a finger at a seemingly guilty third party either implicitly or explicitly. Koenig herself actually states in one episode that she has developed theories about an aspect of the case “but none that (she) can convey responsibly” through the podcast. It’s an acknowledgement of her understanding of the immense power she has over the minds of an audience and I applaud her for it.
I believe the difference between a journalist and a writer is not their objectivity, but rather their responsibility.
Objective journalism is a fallacy. We all know this to some degree, and that’s why many of us have become cynical of “the news”. I for one can attest that it’s one of the many reasons why I lost faith in my degree in journalism many years ago. I felt that the task of detached objectivity was impossible, and to claim you had achieved it was somewhat deceitful.
The news might masquerade as being unbiased, but this is blatantly untrue. Just because you make the professional decision to take up the mantle of a journalist, your lack of bias does not melt away. Your conditioning as a human being will stick around like a fungus and dictate your actions just like anyone else. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all have bias. We may exercise our consciousness of it along with a certain degree of restraint, but it influences our every decision.
We seem to totally remove the journalist from the equation when they convey “the news”. The problem is that same journalist is essential to fully processing that same equation. A person cannot properly place or process inbound information unless they can get a handle on the source. This is not only far more ethical, it’s far more readable. People do not get their news from papers, people get their news from people. Paper is not fascinating, but how a person shapes it is.
You can’t save souls in an empty church, and you cannot bore people into being informed
With Serial we have been presented with a form of Journalism not altogether new, but fresh in it’s ability to make people legitimately interested in an unravelling story in an ethical way. Yes, it’s subject matter is intensely fascinating, but I would argue that the essentials of it’s format can be applied to almost any kind of breaking story:
We choose to follow the progressive journey of a single journalist, experience the people they come across, orient ourselves with their personality flaws and biases and acknowledge what we learn to be simply through a single lens, and nothing more, because to pretend to be anything more is impossible. It’s far from new, it’s Gonzo journalism. Not only does it solve the issue pertaining to objectivity, but it also has one other enormous benefit.
So much of modern journalism is about churning out stories faster than the next guy. The internet and the popularisation of the blog has created a race, and one that inherently works to sabotage the value of news output. Despite some diamonds in the rough, established Publications like the Age and the Herald Sun now skew towards compete on quantity rather than quality, and in doing so they’ve turned their back on very area in which they’re more experienced writers actually held an advantage over citizen bloggers. Producing well researched, palatable reporting.
The Serial-format has one, incredibly powerful point of asymmetrical advantage.
In adopting a Serial-style format, a journalist would regain the one precious resource that age of “churnalism” has robbed them of: Time.
Think of it like this: Even if the questions presented in Serial were resolved tomorrow by another, swifter reporter, Koenig still has a monopoly on one distinctive facet of the story her audience has bought into: Sarah Koenig herself.
We would want to understand how her story in all this concludes and thus we would return to her telling of the narrative. Additionally, she has earned our trust. Any resolution must be endorsed by or involve her or her the stories’ audience would not accept it.
Yes, there are inherent risks.
The format is far from perfect. Koenig is walking a tightrope of responsibility and there is a chance she may stumble along they way. Additionally, because the segments are presented as a broader narrative, much of the success of the form rests on her ability to answer the questions and bring the narrative of her piece to a satisfactory conclusion. She herself even acknowledges how concerned she is about this.
For further concern is the scope of the audience to directly impact the unraveling of the narrative itself. The enormous level of global traction the series is receiving can, will and has had a direct impact as the unfolding of the events. Audience members, particularly those who are in some proximity to the subjects in Baltimore are actively becoming involved in furthering the story, contributing information and shaping the mystery’s ultimate outcome. One could state that this serves to benefit the piece, but you could just as easily say that this is inherently dangerous and that Koenig should not allow it within her journalistic format. Given Koenig’s clearly demonstrated ability to distil new information in it’s context, I would argue the former. No doubt these, and more complex questions will steadily be debated as the style is further explored.
I’m not only anticipating a slew of copycats, I’m praying for them.
Serial’s success is a demonstration that journalism can be both responsible, and engaging. Moreover, provided it’s recent fundraising effort finds its mark, it has the potential to prove that quality journalism can be it’s own product, not the advertising space that it creates.
Because God knows we need quality reporting now more than ever.