Some Thoughts on the Moral Dimensions of SERIAL

As you may have heard, the long-awaited second season of the runaway hit podcast Serial debuted this morning. And I’ve spent the morning debating whether or not I’m going to listen.

Like 100 million (and counting) other people, I binge-listened to the first season, which chronicled the story of Adnan Sayed who is serving a life sentence for the (possibly wrongful conviction of) murder of his high school ex-sweetheart. While listening, I felt intrigued, eager to find out the truth, concerned about being duped, shocked by the podcast’s quick rise to pop culture fame, and…naggingly concerned that maybe listening to entertainment journalism about the lives of actual people and being so immersed in it and gossiping about it with everyone else who was listening was somehow morally wrong or weird or both.

I still don’t know, to be honest.

This past August, I spent an evening at the Winspear Opera House listening to Serial’s Sarah Koenig round out a FABULOUS #thinkspeak series hosted by the AT&T Performing Arts Center. (If you’re in Dallas, you should just plan to get season tickets to next year’s now…) It was really helpful, actually, in giving me some room to think about what Serial is, and what good and bad has come from it. But I still find myself pretty torn, and not entirely certain how to describe it, or why. Here are some thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours, too.

How much information is too much? 

I’m going to be honest, at the risk of sounding judgy in the process: I find those in-depth court case news programs to be morally questionable. The whole point of a court room is to provide a modicum of containment while still keeping the proceedings public for accountability. I don’t think it’s beneficial to our justice system for reporters to sit in there, only to come out and announce all the gory details to the rest of us on prime time news. We are not judge, or lawyer, or jury. We are not involved enough to attend the court case in person. Probably it is not really our business to know all the information. What do we gain by knowing all the information, anyway? What’s in it for us? And though Serial is not exactly the same kind of animal, I think the question about how much information is too much still applies.

As a pastor, I’m used to being given a lot of information- often private, privileged information. And some of this is information I really needed, in order to do my job, in order to provide what I hoped to be wise counsel. But sometimes when I have met with someone, I received information that crosses a line. It’s always so subtle. It’s usually done out of anger, or pain. I am given a piece of information that is helpful and necessary, and then right after it I am given a piece of information that is just for spite. It makes the other person look bad, or it tells something about someone’s backstory that is irrelevant at the moment. It’s information I did not need to know, and should not have been told. It’s too much, and now that it’s been told, something about the conversation changes. I now have to be mindful of my own feelings toward the person, and to do my best to release that information back into the ether, out of love, and out of care for that person. It is not for me to know.

What I am trying to say is that some information denigrates people. It is destructive information. A good number of verses in the New Testament letters guard us against using this kind of language, also called gossip or slander or any number of other things. These things are usually said out of spite, or anger, or general lack of care. It is done in such a way that it maligns the image of God in the other person. It is no longer constructive, but destructive. And yeah, I think this is expected of us even when we are talking about convicted murderers. It negatively affects all of us when we speak in this way. Which, let me just admit, I’m sure I do ALL the time. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to stay aware of it, and call it what it is.

For me, listening to the first season of Serial was mentally and emotionally exhausting- for a number of reasons, to be sure, but for the foundational reason that I am just not certain about how I feel about getting this involved in a story that is quite frankly none of my business. I will tell you what did it for me that first season: it was the diary. I was running, listening to the podcast as I trudged along, and all of a sudden I was hearing the inner private thoughts of a girl I do not know about a boy I do not know. On public radio. I literally stopped running. I just felt gross and sick about it. In what universe is it any of my business what Hae Min Lee privately thought about a boy? That was too much information. It was dishonoring to her, to read her diary like that. Maybe the judge needs to see that, maybe the lawyers, maybe even 12 jury members. But not 100 million strangers.

Which leads me to my second question…

What do we lose when justice becomes entangled with entertainment?

The other reason I find those court room TV recap news shows to be morally questionable is that they make trauma, violence, and tragedy into entertainment. I have a real problem with that. Justice is not entertaining. Heck, when justice is present, it actually makes for a pretty boring day. (Everything working well over here then? Good, carry on.) When we make the pursuit of justice entertaining, it’s almost like we are making injustice sexy, or at the very least appealing. Why do we need to know how someone dealt with a body? Or what the process of the attack was, in explicit detail? It just seems in poor taste to want to know these things. For the most part, I don’t think Serial did this. I think Sarah Koenig really wanted to do what she could to find information to solidify what happened to Hae Min Lee. I think that is noble, really. And Koenig would be the first to admit she had NO idea how this thing would take off and take on a life of its own.

But it did take off. And it became premium cultural entertainment. How many conversations have you had with people about Adnan?! Right??? James K.A. Smith talks about things like this being cultural liturgies, which is such an insightful way to look at it. Liturgies form us. They form how we think and what we value and how we live. A cultural liturgy, then, is something that has a powerful force in the dominating culture to the point of being formative. It affects us, and even shapes us. Another way of putting this is to say: we are what we discuss. So it may be worth pondering how Serial as a cultural liturgy forms us, for better and worse.

Again, I think Serial has good intentions here. It may be that I’m wary considering our current cultural climate. When we are already so poised to judge, to make light, to mock, to react, to overstep, is this the kind of media that we need?

Only time will tell if season one results in justice. That would require more definitive proof, either that Adnan is guilty, or that he isn’t.

The internet does not follow the rules of journalism.

One of the biggest takeaways from listening to Sarah Koenig at #thinkspeak was the distinction between the professional rules of journalism she and her team took painstaking efforts to apply, and the responses of people on the internet, who held no such standard. At one point in the evening, she said, “I now can no longer tell a source I can protect their privacy.” That just wrecked me. The internet can be such a cesspool of false facts and opinions. Imagine being a journalist who is trying to be above-board, only to have some person with an axe to grind following up after you, undoing all the goodwill and trust you just worked so hard to create. Journalists try to create a safe space for the truth to be heard and known. The internet just wants to be heard, and it doesn’t care how. It doesn’t even care if it’s true, as long as it’s loud.

But how much worse does that get when we are not talking about Hollywood celebrities or politicians but regular people who happened to have gone through a very traumatic loss? I thought about poor Hae Min Lee’s parents, who have already lost their daughter to a gruesome murder, and now they have idiot strangers hunting them down asking for interviews and information. FOR PERSONAL ENTERTAINMENT. God have mercy. Or Adnan’s family, and his imam, and all the conspiracy theories I heard people tell me they read. Or even Jay, who, like everyone else listening, I wanted to hear more from and get some answers. But then when that long article came out (you know the one), I felt bad for him. Jay has a LIFE, you guys. He has a family and a workplace and friends, and it is not his job to convince all 100 million of us that he was telling the truth X amount of years ago. He did his job in court, and that’s the place that counts. Man, what a mess.

The internet age is possibly the worst time to overstep our bounds on what information we need to know, and how we go about seeking justice. Moving toward salacious entertainment and sliding into uncorroborated rumor-mongering is terrifyingly easy. Sometimes people do not care about the truth. Sometimes all they care about is the attention.

I tend to regard self-appointed journalists with the same wariness that I regard self-appointed security officers. Whether you carry a pen or a gun, you may have a propensity to step over the line and out of your bounds. And bad things happen when that happens. There is a reason we have trained police and security officers, and a reason we have journalists who went to school and got degrees in it first. They know things we don’t know. They know how to do their jobs above-board. I get very leery of people who think those standards are unnecessary.

“We are not morons.”

I don’t want to be overly negative about Serial. I really liked Sarah Koenig a lot, and I think there is value in what they are trying to do, despite my reservations. So I want to end on a more positive note. Another thing Koenig shared with us is how people warned her that the American public was not really interested in long-form journalism. And they were wrong. As she said, “We are not morons. Listeners will take their time for journalism that takes its time.”

I couldn’t be more delighted about that. And I think we should do all we can to encourage and support journalism that is professional enough and patient enough to take its time.

 

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and your reactions to my ramblings. Do you share my reservations and concerns? Do you think I’m being overly sensitive? Do you plan to listen to season 2? (The topic seems very delicate to me, which is why I’m leaning toward no at the moment…)

6 Comments

  1. Hey, friend-

    Thanks for sharing this. You make some good points, some of which I hadn’t considered.

    That said, I do plan on giving season 2 a chance. (I am about halfway through the first episode already as I found your post.) I don’t know that I have any persuasive answers to your concerns, though.

    I found the first season worthwhile for a few reasons. The long-form format is a nice break from my usual media diet of one-off blog posts, condensed news, facebook entries, podcasts, etc. It encourages me to callback a longer narrative which gets a part of my mind exercised that might otherwise be in some danger of atrophy. It forced me to re-examine how evidence establishes one’s guilt or innocence (and what constitutes evidence). And it was a compelling story that was handled well from a journalistic standpoint. SK got me as perplexed as she was.

    There’s no justification for people harassing Hae Min’s parents or trying to contact Jay. I get that. Most folks who listened to the podcast did NOT do any of that.

    And there is a reason trials are public record. We don’t want these things done in secret so that we are less likely to get wrong verdicts. That means there needs to be a scrutiny from the press. You can say they’re oversimplifying things in order to get a soundbite – that may very well be a valid complaint. But the answer isn’t to get rid of the press. The answer is to stop soundbiting the story…

    Which is the point of “Serial” after all, right?

  2. Hey Kenton! Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you on the long-form format wholeheartedly. It reminds us to use longer-term memory, and also to practice patience! (I’m listening to another serial podcast and they are very irregular…I keep getting annoyed when I check my feed and there’s STILL not another one! Patience takes practice, they say.)

    I’m really grateful that you brought up the point of evidence. I was remiss in not mentioning that. Serial should get BIG props for giving people an inside look at our justice system and its flaws. Most people would agree, regardless of how they feel about Adnan’s guilt or innocence, that he probably did not have the most fair or well-executed trial. If Serial showed us that we should be healthily skeptical of young men convicted of murder, I think that’s a huge win for society in general. I remember thinking often while I was listening about young black men who are wrongly convicted of all kinds of things and currently serve time despite their innocence. So- that is a HUGE thing to leave out.

    And I hear you on the public record. I agree with professional journalists being hard-hitters. I don’t know what to do with the way that intersects with our 24-hour news entertainment cycle. And I have MUCH more respect for Koenig than, say, Nancy Grace (whose show I admit I’ve never watched in full, so maybe I’m judging too harshly). Again it’s a question of how much information, and perhaps I’d add in what way and to what end.

    But you are totally right to point out how insightful it was to go on that journey with her, and realize how complicated these things are. I mean, that’s why 100 million of us listened. Thank you for pointing it out.

  3. *Thank You* for this. We listened to Serial on a road trip and I kept telling Lace that something about listening to it (and actually loving it) wasn’t sitting well with me. I couldn’t figure it out. All I could say was that being so entertained by a story that affected real, living and breathing people’s lives so deeply and profoundly, and still does to this day (and always will) – felt … weird to me. I am thankful now to have more words to that sentiment.

  4. is it good for any and all parties – to track a genre with aesthetics – which is tracking-[and treating content the way a graphic designer- art director does] which helps a brand [NPR] involving a real unsolved case involving ppl who are deceased and or in jail who have families.

    did i get that right?
    i am already [not]crying now-that is how far way from [human] that sentence is to write.

    now i want a [human] to be near me to remember that i am a human who is loved.

  5. Glad I’m not the only one that felt a little weirded out by it, April!

  6. This is an excellent article, describing what I feel about the podcast but was unable to vocalise so eloquently. I too enjoyed ‘Serial’ but stopped enjoying and listening to it when I found out it was about real people. It is much too intrusive into other peoples’ lives. Real murder is a tragedy not a source of entertainment.

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