The Ethics of Serial
Two months in and I’m still hooked. That’s my biggest surprise when it comes to Serial. If you’re unfamiliar, Serial spawned as a proof-of-concept from the creators of This American Life. Unlike TAL, Serial borrows mechanics from HBO and Netflix, and tells a single story over the course of a season, with one major difference. Serial is audio only. It’s a podcast. If you haven’t given it a shot, do yourself a favor and do it now. I have yet to meet someone who regrets it. If you need better convincing, The Atlantic can take it from here.
And just like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, Serial listeners don’t simply internalize the show. It’s an outward cathartic experience. Bring up the show to any listener and be prepared to have your ear talked off with theories and predictions. YouTube has gifted us with How People Obsess Over ‘Serial’ which basically sums it up. As you might expect, these obsessions spill over into social media.
It’s a true story about a murder
Without getting into too big of an explainer (Vox can handle that), the important thing to remember is the show is re-investigating a closed murder case from 1999. Sarah Koenig, the show’s host, strings listeners along by carefully crafting when and how she will reveal information she has spent months piecing together. She creates suspicion around a man who was investigated but never jailed for the murder. She creates empathy towards the convicted murder. She paints some side-personnel as trustworthy, others as not; some are portrayed favorably while others are not afforded that luxury.
And this is where I starting thinking about the ethics of it all. Since the show is so excellent at captivating its audience, it’s no surprise that avid listeners have taken to sites like reddit to continue the discussion and share theories. Unfortunately, reddit doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to real-life murders.
The internet is not better than professionals
In 2013, reddit users decided they would become internet vigilantes and solve the Boston bombing attack via a crowd-sourced investigation. They “analyzed” photos and video from the event and outed, and subsequently doxxed, multiple people that they believed were behind the attack. The only problem is that reddit was wrong. All of those exposed through their investigative work were completely innocent. Unfortunately for those put under the magnifying glass, their personal information was shared and harassment and threats of violence followed. Upper brass at the site apologized, but it was too late.
And redditors are almost doing it again with Serial. The podcast’s subreddit is a mix of fans and theorists. Most of which are benign. After all, it’s impossible to listen to Serial and not form an opinion! But then there are others who are digging up old arrest records. Users are sharing color-coded Excel sheets of dates, times, and events. Commenters are avidly pro- or anti- Adnan. Users are already being driven out of the community. And this is where I get nervous. As far as I know, redditors have not personally contacted those involved in the story. And so I caution redditors or anyone else fixated on the show: don’t do it.
These are real people, not characters. They endured a childhood friend being murdered. The last thing any of this needs is a self-proclaimed internet sleuth deciding they’re taking matters into their own hands. The subreddits does state “We do not support doxxing or harassment towards any of the people mentioned in Serial” but has a disclaimer ever changed the mind of a troll?
The last question I have, and I admit it’s open-ended, is whether Sarah Koenig and the This American Life team are completely absolved of any ethical concerns. As of now (and as far as I know), nothing bad has come from the production of Serial. And Koenig has tried to make it very clear that she doesn’t want Serial to be a means to an end. It’s not her stated goal to free someone from prison. And yet, you hear a different story in her voice. Just as listeners yearn for answers, Koenig telegraphs a similar ethos as she tells the story. It’s very clear when she is frustrated by confusion, contradiction, and deceit. Our emotions are guided by the emotions she puts into the show. Is this a side-effect or by design?
Keep the correct perspective
Last month, Ira Glass told a performance hall full of people in Cincinnati that the show’s audience was in the “hundreds of thousands”. Since that time it has only gained in popularity. It is masterfully produced and will be sorely missed when the season ends. But when the latest episode is delivered every Thursday, keep in mind that Koenig, Glass, et all are doing just that: producing an amazing story. You don’t know the subjects, and it is unlikely that the show is going to change the lives of anyone involved. No matter how good Serial is, we will never know the whole story. We weren’t there and we weren’t in the courtroom. Stick around for the ride and remember that this is all packaged entertainment.