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Serial: Journalism, Entertainment and Privacy

by on November 11, 2015

Our focus on To Catch a Predator has forced me to consider the almost invisibly thin line between journalism and entertainment. A significant portion of journalism is entertainment at some level. It exists because people are interested in it. It exists to make money. This doesn’t mean that it is bad journalism. Good journalism can be incredibly entertaining and popular. It doesn’t even mean that the journalist had any ulterior motives in what they were doing. There is just a relationship between almost all journalism and entertainment even if the primary goal of the work is not to entertain.

To Catch a Predator obviously is much more entertainment than journalism. I’m not sure that those behind the show would even claim that they are doing journalism – even though it inherently is journalism on some level even if it happens to be bad journalism. But they would not outright claim that the show is entertainment either. Classifying a show that deals with such sensitive matters solely as entertainment seems inhumane and offensive to some. They would probably frame their work more as a public good. This doesn’t carry any of the negative connotations that come along with calling a show about sexual predators entertainment and also does not hold them to the high standards of journalism. There are obvious ethical problems with To Catch a Predator. The show is no longer airing in part because of these problems. But the public overlooked these ethical problems because of the idea that the show was ultimately doing a public good. The public did not consider the rights or humanity of alleged predators. The public felt like the crimes these predators were accused of invalidated their humanity. The show may have had ethical failings and it may not have been good journalism, but it was entertaining and could be justified as ultimately doing a public good.

To Catch a Predator is a rather extreme example of the line between journalism and entertainment. It is almost entirely entertainment with some elements of journalism. But there are many examples that provide a more nuanced picture of the blur that exists between journalism and entertainment.  Serial became the most popular podcast of all time by mixing journalism with entertainment. It is an exhaustively researched (sometimes even tediously so – was there a payphone at Best Buy???) and reported story. There are many elements of good journalism. But the show is obviously entertainment as well. Sarah Koenig and her team told the story in weekly installments that concluded with a finale that presented some sort of conclusion. The format was the same as serialized television shows. There were teases and cliffhangers and other familiar entertainment elements that seem to contradict with what we know as good journalism. Good journalism doesn’t hold information for later. It doesn’t make you come back next week for the truth. It just tells you the truth. It doesn’t reach a conclusion just because the season is over. It continues exhaustively reporting a case until it is able to satisfactorily find the truth.

I am not saying that Serial isn’t good journalism. I had many problems with the podcast, but the journalistic integrity of it was not one of them. Sarah Koenig and her team did the best they could within their format. They faced many ethical dilemmas and dealt with them the best that they could.

Serial especially had to consider the privacy of those both involved with and loosely connected to this murder case.They were digging up awful memories and asking people to relive what was possibly the worst time in their lives over a decade after they had come to some sort of peace with it. Serial was searching for the truth and by doing so inevitably casting suspicion on others. If Adnan Syed is possibly innocent of murdering Hae Min Lee then that means that someone else is guilty. That cast suspicion on an alleged accomplice of Syed’s that Koenig only referred to on the podcast as Jay. She attempted to talk to Jay but was repeatedly declined. She was even declined after once showing up on his door (which is an ethical question itself). This raised an important ethical question. How would she deal with Jay if he was not willing to tell his story? Koenig opted not to reveal Jay’s last name to grant him some sort of privacy. This was not effective. People on Reddit almost immediately figured out Jay’s full name and found out where he lived, his criminal record and nearly everything about him. Others that were less directly involved with the crime were affected by the podcast as well. The always rational people of Reddit and the Internet were now trying to solve a murder case and by doing so were recklessly speculating and invading the lives of people cursorily connected to the case.

Serial raised important questions about the case that it covered, but it did not find the truth or come to any sort of definitive conclusion. This did not stop less qualified people from continuing the work done by Serial in a much less ethical manner. There is still an incredibly active subreddit attempting to solve what the podcast couldn’t. There are other unconnected spinoff podcasts about the case that are not exhaustively researched and engage in the wild speculation that Sarah Koenig and Serial didn’t.

Serial is not to blame for what others have done in wake of the podcast. But there was obvious harm being done by Serial in their search for the truth. It is much easier to accept that harm if Serial is purely a piece of journalism. It is much easier to accept that harm if Serial is doing a public good and uncovering truth that the legal system failed to. It is less easy to accept the harm that Serial did if you consider it solely a work of entertainment. But in reality Serial is some combination of all of these. Most journalism is entertainment at some level. It might be easier to feel better about yourself or for the audience to feel better about what you are doing if you deny that creating an entertaining work is any part of your thought process, but there are capitalistic realities of the job that cannot be ignored. It is great that Serial exposed good investigative journalism to such a wide audience. It is great that it made money and was so successful. It proved that there is a huge audience for smart journalism. I have no problems with the format of the show being optimized to be as entertaining as possible. What is ultimately important is the quality of the journalism. To Catch a Predator was an example of awful journalism. It was people being exploited almost solely for television ratings. Serial was good journalism in a format that was optimized for entertainment. The fact that there were some harmful consequences of Serial does not change that it was good journalism. There are always going to be consequences, but it is important that you minimize the harm that they can do. Those behind Serial took every possible step they could to do that and did so ethically. The podcast served as a perfect example of good ethical journalism that was also entertaining and could reach a massive audience.

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One Comment
  1. I agree with you on “To Catch a Predator” is an entertainment show than journalism. When you say that you are not sure whether the people behind the show “would even claim that they are doing journalism,” I guess it depend on who it is. Several people practicing journalism today think in their mind that they are journalists, simply because of the journalistic work that they perform. The problem with that is those amateur have no idea about what it take someone to be a professional journalist. For example, myself. I was volunteering at a radio station in New York City that is run by people from my country for 4 years. Everyone from that radio think that we were doing journalism because we were responsible for providing news to our community. People from everywhere in the world used to listen to us. But today, especially while taking journalism ethics, I realize that none of us were journalists even though our audience calls us so. I am not saying that everything we did was unethical, but a lot of it should be classified as entertainment. I think that had happen to us because only two of us among the 9 were professional journalists; and today, I am asking myself what those two “ ( journalists) had studied in school, since none of them ever corrected the rest of us. But maybe they don’t know ethics! If I had to go back to work for that radio, I would want to change must of the manner in which they are still working on until now. To come back to our “To Catch the predator,” I do not think nor did the people who used to run the show had an idea about ethics neither the public. A lot of people study journalism but they might ignore taking the ethics class or they might not even know how crucial it is for journalists to learn ethics. Honestly, If I happened to graduate without taking this class, I would have still done a lot of mistakes like I did in the past even with my Bachelor degree. The public of course might thought that To catch a predatory was doing good to them, but probably, only few of them would think of something related to morality, because they are not train to know it the way you and I are.

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