A shocking, tragic loss not only for his family and The New York Times, but for us all.
There's a lot of chatter today about the end of Serial, the podcast from This American Life that has followed the story of Adnan Syed, who is in prison after being found guilty for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
SPOILERS BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Today's episode didn't end the way some people wanted. Adnan is still in prison, and the world is still unsure of his guilt.
Serial ends with lots of open questions; there's no clear next step, no immediate benefit to Adnan for taking part in the story. Serial may have unpacked his case — his very life — but it didn't put things back together in a way that has much closure for the audience.
Honestly though, even typing that makes me feel weird. It's hard to remember it's all true. Serial plays out like a television crime drama — and entertains like one — but it's not.
It's a news story.
It's well-edited and heavily polished, but under all of it, Serial's first season was just a news story.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Serial's narrator and co-creator Sarah Koenig said this, looking forward to today's finale:
I’ll present what my reporting bears out, and that’s my responsibility. It’s not my responsibility to entertain you with some wonderful, perfect ending. I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way at all—it’s just—I’m a reporter.
On one hand, Koenig was clearly trying to set expectations for rabid fans, but on the other, her point about Serial being a result of reporting is important.
Her work on Serial wasn't traditional, hardcore journalism. Koenig freely shared her personal opinions and views in every episode, something that isn't smiled upon those in the industry who believe reporters should be objective, if not clinical, in their writing.
Serial wasn't created from that school of thought. It's a blend of entertainment and news reporting. It's a hybrid of fact and opinion.
That tension is why Serial is so popular, and at the same time, so weird — and, at times, oddly uncomfortable. It's why the ending — though rooted in reality — is disappointing to so many people.
Serial wasn't the first piece of work to blend entertainment and reporting, of course, but I do think Serial functions as journalism. Koenig and her team clearly spent lots of time investigating every angle of Adnan's story, no matter how obscure the detail or difficult to track down.
In many ways, Serial could only exist as a podcast. The episodes give the story a rhythm and give the audience a sense of excitement each week. It's a great medium for this type of blended reporting.
However, the old-school rules of objective journalism exist for a reason. They protect reporters, subjects and stories from being influenced by emotions. Breaking those rules is fine, as long as expectations are set correctly. The fact that people are upset at Serial's ending indicates they weren't.
While I still don't know what I think about him, I hope Adnan's case gets back in front of a judge. I hope his story is heard, and that Koenig's work can help straighten it all out.
Journalists can affect great change, but expecting it to happen in a neat 12-part story with an exciting ending is a little silly.
Remember Sugarstring, the Verizon-backed "news" site?
Here's Verizon's statement to DSL Reports:
As you know, we’ve always said this was a pilot project; and as with any pilot project, we evaluate, take our learnings, improve our execution and move forward. That’s what we’ve decided to do here.
via The Verge
Verizon is getting into the news business. What could go wrong?
The most-valuable, second-richest telecommunications company in the world is bankrolling a technology news site called SugarString.com. The publication, which is now hiring its first full-time editors and reporters, is meant to rival major tech websites like Wired and the Verge while bringing in a potentially giant mainstream audience to beat those competitors at their own game.
I have no problem whatsoever with publications having advertisers. If you’re reading this on my site, you’ll see both a graphic ad and a text ad. Once a week, I post sponsored content in my RSS feed.
The difference between what I — and countless others — do and what Verizon is doing with SugarString is a clear divide between content and advertising. SugarString screams Verizon, from the red colors to the bold text. Oh, and the Verizon logo. And the “PRESENTED BY VERIZON” graphic at the bottom of the page.
Then there’s this:
There’s just one catch: In exchange for the major corporate backing, tech reporters at SugarString are expressly forbidden from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today.
Verizon is one of the worst offenders at trying to limit net neutrality and has taken a major hit in the press over this year’s shocking news about programs like the NSA’s Prism. To help counter this, SugarString editors are allowed to cover these issues outside the US, but not inside. Just check out this article on Hungary’s plan to tax Internet traffic:
It’s every government’s responsibility to keep internet charges as low as possible, so access to high-quality information isn’t limited to the rich. By artificially increasing the price of internet access, Hungary’s government would punish users who were trying to contribute to the world’s knowledge and economy. If they managed to force providers to bear the costs, they’d be punishing those companies any time they grew, discouraging them from increasing bandwidth or improving their services. An internet traffic tax is an innovation tax, and any such tax, no matter how small, would be philosophically devastating.
All that about advertising and content being intermixed is small in my eyes compared to this. SugarString is condemning Hungary for doing what its parent company Verizon has been lobbying for — sometimes in terrible ways — for years.
SugarString isn’t bad journalism; it’s not journalism at all. It’s just plain, old-fashioned PR bullshit that is brazen even for a company as tone deaf as Verizon.