I hate Thursday mornings. For me, they've always been worse than Mondays. It's like a temporal fake-out for me -- I wake up, think it's Friday but, no, it's Thursday.
And then, I started listening to Serial.
Don't know what Serial is? (Have you been living under a rock?) You can find the details at the website -- the basics are that it is a piece of audio documentary journalism told in 12 episodes as a podcast. The story is centered on the murder of an 18-year-old high school girl, Hae Min Lee, 15 years ago, but its focus is the ex-boyfriend who was convicted of the murder.
The story deals with xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. It touches on issues of memory and on the reliability of eyewitnesses. It explores the US justice system.
And it's really, really good.
I worked for years in public radio before going back to grad school and Serial is the type of reporting, the type of production, I had hoped to one day be able to produce.
It's not perfect. What is? There have been a number of criticisms leveled at it -- it's been accused of being an example of "white reporter privilege" as well as being exploitative and sensationalist.
I teach journalism ethics. I was unaware of the podcast until the first episode had come out and spent much of the fall semester trying to find ways of working it into my class.
There's just so much there.
Just the content of the podcast alone has so much material to fuel class discussions.
In addition to the conversation surrounding memory and the way minorities are treated in media (and society at large) there is the way reporter Sarah Koenig inserts herself at times into the story, creating a feeling of transparency that often leaves you wondering just how much distance she's been able to put between herself and the story.
She worked on the podcast for more than a year. I worked on a more straightforward radio documentary about the AIDS epidemic in Alabama for a year and I will tell you right now, when you are stewing in research and interviews that long, it's sometimes difficult to see where the story ends and you begin.
There's also the issue of truth. One of the mandates of the profession is to "seek the truth and report it." My ethics class spends a lot of time discussing what truth is, what it means journalistically, and what it means more broadly. We also spend a lot of time discussing how who we are as people impacts the way we interpret what is true.
Truth -- what it is, what it isn't, and what it could be -- is constantly being debated, chewed on, and spit out in Serial.
There's also the relationship with sources that can provide a lot of fodder for class discussions.
The reporter-source relationship is among the most important in the profession. If your sources don't trust you, if you can't trust them, then you cannot do your job.
Serial came about, in part, because a woman brought the story to Koenig. Rabia Chaudry is a family friend of Adnan Syed, the man who was convicted of killing Hae Min Lee. Chaudry asked Koenig to look into the story because she felt Syed was innocent and never got a fair trial.
One of the questions my students and I discussed this fall was, "How do you navigate the source-reporter relationship when the source brings you the story and so clearly has an idea of what she thinks you'll find?"
Chaudry, by the way, has been writing about Serial on her blog, Split the Moon. If you've been following the podcast you should check it out.
That, though, brings me to another thing that has been so fascinating about Serial (especially for someone who once worked in public radio and hoped her stories would get a fraction of the attention this podcast has gotten).
It has spawned so much media -- both social media and mainstream media -- attention.
There's a Serial subreddit where people discuss theories and debate the character of various people who appear in the podcast. Slate has been covering the podcast extensively at its site. A search for #serial on Twitter turns up countless tweets from academics, media critics, as well as podcast fans.
It's absolutely wonderful that a piece of longform reporting is getting so much attention. But, my students and I wondered, how does that impact the journalism?
The podcast caught me unawares this fall. Much of my integration of Serial into my ethics class was done as aspects of the reporting related to what my students and I were discussing and reading.
This spring I plan to devote a chunk of time to it -- at least a week, maybe two depending on whether I can get some Skype dates worked out -- because of all the reasons I mentioned above.
Many of my students, after listening to the assigned first episode, continued listening to Serial every Thursday. It caught their attention and I want to harness that in my class because I think discussion of real world examples, especially when those examples come from things students are actually interested in, can help make abstract concepts much more concrete.
And, selfishly, it gives me a reason to listen to the series from start to finish again.