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Conversations on the Serial Podcast: Four

Serial is more than halfway complete at this point. I’ve waited until now to focus on one of the three most central topics for my study of the podcast: ethics. It is a happy coincidence that our guest on today’s Hangout is Adam Bonnifield (/u/quickredditaccount), one of the four moderators of the Serial subreddit; Reddit serves as a massive laboratory for media ethics because users operate without journalists’ professional boundaries.

My conversation with Rabia Chaudry and special guest Adam Bonnifield today:

Serial has made its audience more sensitive to questions of journalistic ethics than any mass media project in recent memory. Given that the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Adnan Syed is a matter of public record, the names, dates, and statements are there for the collecting; yet, the Serial team has built its own rubric for who is safe to “reveal” and who is not, based, for the most part, on the willingness of the subject to be interviewed. We know that “Cathy” is not Cathy’s real name but she consented to be interviewed, while “Stephanie” is Stephanie’s real name, but she did not consent. Serial uses anonymized names (Neighbor Boy and Mr. S.), but these are people who exist in police records and trial transcripts, so Serial is building its own standard that is potential based on the team’s rich experience on This American Life.

Whether fiction or nonfiction, being entertained by the misfortunes and victories of others is cathartic — useful in understanding and calming our own anxieties — and a natural part of the narrative process. Whether it’s Oedipus the King or Cops, audiences can be transfixed watching emotional and physical tragedy, usually with the expectation of a certain moral accounting at the end. There is a complicated narrative algebra to what audiences enjoy and what, if anything, makes a narrative “artful.” You can trace it back to Aristotle’s Poetics (4th century BCE) or before, through the beginning of discipline of “narratology” (19th century), or into the terms we all learned in our high school literature textbooks (memorization: yuck).

And right when someone might stumble from an academic setting and yell “none of this stuff means anything,” along comes Serial — a mass media project that has either accidentally or on purpose cultivated a storm of tweets, blogs posts, and Reddit traffic that has the potential to actually impact the fate of Adnan Syed.

I’ll talk about the “perforated” nature of knowledge (stories being a subcategory of knowledge) in the new media ecosphere in a future post. For today, I’d like for us to consider the conditions under which we feel comfortable digesting the story of Adnan Syed, interacting with the characters in the story, and pronouncing judgement on those with whom we disagree. Internet users in general and Reddit users specifically are athletic defenders of free speech and open content, I know. But remember this guy?

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Anyone who has read or seen A Clockwork Orange understands the argument it makes about media: that it affects us and can control us. While most of us would resist the government forcing violent, dehumanizing media onto a subject in order to “steer” his behavior, how closely do we attend to the nuances of our own media consumption. If Hae Min Lee, Adnan Syed, and Jay become simply players on our mental stage, how much does that affect our ability to learn from Serial. As others have prolifically argued elsewhere, Serial is not really about a murder; it’s about the criminal justice system, or the complexities of race, or the process of reporting truth.

How much does being “hooked” by or “obsessed with” Serial impact its ability to transcend a good story and become, for the listener, something else? How does our ability to interact with and become part of a narrative — different from dinner theater here, I am talking about the access that new media give us to facts, characters, and collaborative potential — affect the impact of that narrative on us? In the same way that Koenig is frequently brought to the “am I getting to close to the case” question, how do manage our own orientation to narrative? My suspicions are that there are two registers — entertainment value and personal engagement — that have inverse relationship to each other.

I look forward to our conversation today. I’m open to suggestions for future guests within our format. I will be emailing Sarah Koenig this week to invite her to our final installment.

[Image courtesy of Magdalena Lagaleriade via Flickr and Creative Commons] 

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