Serial should be a staple: a response to Woodhead

Journalism is invasive. Reporting is often built on conflict and rare drama.

Sometimes – rarely – journalism challenges our perceptions of society, government and ourselves.

Reporting on crime can highlight injustice, be a warning of broader danger or be the worst kind of obituary, where a person’s death overshadows their life.

Often it is an opportunity for the audience to rubberneck at the tragedies that befall others. In his introduction to The Faber Book of Reportage, John Carey suggests the regular reporting of deaths ‘places the reader in the position of a survivor … who has escaped the violent and terrible ends which, it graphically apprises him, others have come to’.

Ultimately all reporting on crime and death is focused on the incident, the investigation or the trial. It leads the reader to make assumptions on whodunit, or whether the accused is guilty. The victim and their families are almost always put to one side.

In my few years as a police reporter in Canberra, and then covering crime elsewhere, there was not a death or a court case I reported where I didn’t feel I was intruding. My limited space, time and attempts to navigate the laws of contempt and sub judice were obstacles to giving appropriate balance, gravitas and exhibiting the complexity of that day’s tragedy.

I experienced a range of responses from criminals, witnesses, police and the bereaved. There was abuse, silent hostility, doors slammed in my face and occasionally I was welcomed.

Most of my reports on murders and court cases ranged from 300 to 500 words. The radio reporters may have had 30 seconds to summarise the story; TV reporters a full 90 seconds.

Inadequate is an inadequate word for the scarcity of time and space devoted to the victims and the devastation survivors are left with long after the journalists have disappeared.

I would struggle to highlight a case I reported that changed laws, regulations or police practice, let alone one that overturned an injustice. At best, these reports may have given some bereaved people the chance to pay a public tribute to the person they had lost.

The producers of Serial have been criticised for a range of perceived injustices, when in fact they are almost peerless in giving context and respect to the death of Hae Ming Lee and incarceration of Adnan Syed.

For more than one million people to be interested in the case and pondering questions of justice nearly fifteen years after the daily media has forgotten those involved is an extraordinary achievement.

The first words of the podcast illustrated some of host Sarah Koenig’s thoughts on the difficulties of her task. Regardless of space, there will always be flaws in the coverage of a murder.

The Paradise Lost trilogy of films exploring the conviction of the West Memphis Three is one of the few examples of the reportage that has had similar impact on a case and broader culture.

These films had fewer existential ponderings on the inherent problems in reporting the case. This did not prevent them from trampling on the reputations and grief of some participants. Those films asked audiences to make rash judgments on the guilt of others while rightly questioning those who had made similar decisions about the guilt of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.

After nine episodes, Serial has delivered nearly six hours of content on the case. It has featured the views and accounts of scores of people at the centre of the case and those tangentially related who may hold vague clues to what happened in the 1999 murder.

The Serial team has posted photos, evidence, timelines and mapped the relationships of 22 people involved.

Importantly, there is more to come, likely another two hours of podcasting and presumably further information online for the growing legion of obsessives.

Part of the success of the show is that it is breaking ground in podcasting. The shows producers are also building on the goodwill and success from 19 years of This American Life.

Critics have ascribed greater responsibility to the producers of Serial because of its success and possibly in response to the gushing praise and support that has flowed so quickly.  The podcast has even inspired its own recap podcasts.

The backlash to something so successful, yet so difficult is understandable.

It shows that despite the time taken, Serial won’t be everything to everyone. It won’t be perfect and it won’t come up with a neat resolution to make us all feel better about the criminal justice system and to think that listening to the story unfold has helped contribute to justice. By raising these questions about justice and storytelling, Serial elevates Hae Ming Lee’s murder from the standard gaze of rubberneckers and escapism. This rare achievement should be celebrated.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

David Stockman has worked as a journalist with the ABC, SBS, News Ltd and Fairfax. He is currently a communications adviser.

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