Serial – and my own ethical dilemma

This week I’ve taken the BBC’s wonderful Powerful Presentations course with the inspiring and witty Sandra Miller.  I recommend you all take it too, especially if you’re terrified; feel the fear and do it anyway.

For today’s five minute presentation I spoke about my conflicting feelings towards my new favourite thing, the Serial podcast.  Here is my presentation as I wrote it (slightly over-written for a speech, slightly under-written for a blog) so I can get out some of the things I’m feeling about it.

Objective: to examine the popularity of the Serial podcast and the ethics of listening from my own PoV

A – Did Adnan Syed kill Hae Min Lee… and does that even matter any more, to the Serial Podcast’s five million listeners?

B – Let’s examine both the runaway success of this incredible series, but also our own ethical standpoint, should we choose to listen.

C – My name’s Janine H. Jones, I’m a writer and broadcaster and I want to explore my own conflicted thoughts on listening to this programme, with which I have become truly obsessed.

D – It’s a lot to pack into a five minute talk, so please reserve questions for the end.

I shan’t assume you’ve all listened to the podcast, although it’s safe to suppose most of you will have heard about it.  iTunes former bestselling podcast, is a documentary format called This American Life.  Serial is an offshoot, concentrating on one true-crime story, unfolded week by week.  Series one focuses on the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest and trial of her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who’s currently serving the fifteenth year of his life-sentence.

Without giving anything away today, the show’s presenter, journalist Sarah Koenig, has spent the last year investigating this crime.  Episodes feature Adnan’s character, his relationship with Hae, the trial and the former friend who went to the police and accused him.  It is, understandably, gripping stuff.

Every Thursday morning (around 10am GMT), 2million listeners will download each new episode as it’s released.  This is unprecedented for any podcast.  This Thursday sees the final episode, the conclusion, the end of something quite special… but what will this ending offer us?  What resolution can there be?  What hope for Adnan and for Hae’s family?

To anyone who hasn’t listened, this may seem like a grim and gory way to spend a Thursday morning.  Add to that, Thursday evening’s essential supplementary listening, the Slate Serial Spoiler Podcast, so a podcast about a podcast, plus the hours to be spent on websites such as Reddit, mulling facts, suggesting hypotheses and reading up on the latest conspiracies.  So far, I have refrained from reading actual court documents and the blog of Rabia Chaudry, the layer who brought this case to Sarah Koenig’s attention.  So far.  I am probably going to read it.

A man is in jail, a girl is dead.  I didn’t begin to question the ethics of listening until I was totally hooked, and I could no more miss the last episode this week, than I could stand on my head to give this talk.  I have questioned it now and as much as I think it offers insight into bigger pictures about justice and the legal system, that’s not why I listen.  I listen because I’m on a journey.  The Producers and Presenter have skilfully crafted a story and I have to know the end, as they see it.  It won’t be the end, of course.  My ears will always prick up when I hear Adnan mentioned on the radio or when second and subsequent series of the podcast are released, but I am aware he may spend the rest of his days in a cell and we will never know who killed Hae Min.

A friend of mine, bit of a nerd who I thought would enjoy the podcast, messaged me while I was actually listening to the penultimate episode and he said he couldn’t listen to the series, something just didn’t sit right with him.  This was awkward for me, as by now I couldn’t not listen to it.  This from a journalism student who had boycotted mainstream press for over a decade, will have nothing to do with sensationalist celebrity gossip, yet here I am, hanging on the every word of a woman who’s potentially going to find the evidence to overturn a life sentence.  And whatever can be said of the case that sent Adnan away, the fact that it’s found to be flawed, is by no means proof of his innocence.

And Hae.  She was 18 years old when she was killed.  Her family were naturally devastated and refused to take part in this podcast – in fact the team have been unable to even track them down, despite incredible efforts.  I feel bad about this.  I wish that I really thought there was a way that shining a light on this case might illuminate a path to peace for this family.  I don’t think that will happen.

In its defence, Serial’s Producers have been incredibly self-aware, both within its actual content and in surrounding interviews.  They offer no promises nor solutions, and Koenig’s own frustration and almost passionate ambivalence has reassured us that her journey is one of principal.  They have made the ride more comfortable for us.

We came to find out if Adnan is innocent.  We’ve stayed for what will ultimately be a meditation on the nature of truth.  Can we be satisfied outside of the wider experience of having enjoyed listening?  Ask me about that midday on Thursday.


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