The truth about true crime: A crime reporter’s qualms about Serial

I’ve reported on violent crime for 25 years including the OJ Simpson case. I consider it a privilege to cover trials. Strip away the glamour of celebrity and a very large proportion, such as the OJ Simpson case, are about domestic violence. And I’ve never understood why so many people love to watch it as fiction.The prosecutor in the case of Adnan Syed recently said it was a classic domestic violence murder too.  Unsettled by the championing of the NPR podcast Serial by the very highbrow cultural critics who often sneer at ordinary crime on the news I chaired a discussion on Front Row with crime journalist turned novelist Laura Lippman  & Panorama reporter John Sweeney , and wrote this column for The Big Issue magazine.

I have a little BBC News app on my mobile phone. It sends an alert when something big has happened. It doesn’t ping me all day. But if I’ve been asleep, or in a meeting, or watching a film with my family, when I choose to look I am reliably told if something big has happened or resolved: A massacre, a hostage crisis, a political resignation, or a major criminal conviction or charge. From such a trusted source, it’s genuinely helpful to those who want to stay informed.

But what has been the flipside of what the internet has done to news? It’s turned anyone one who wants to be into an investigator, without the responsibility of sourcing or balance. Often I meet people randomly circulating stories that have been trending on social media. Sometime they turn out to be years old; a quirk of the way search engine algorithms work, like the churning of deep oceans. More disturbingly they can be from unverifiable websites, given power just by the act of sharing them, such as that hoax photo purporting to show Osama Bin Laden’s corpse after the 2011 Abbottabad assassination raid.

It was a tweet by a Abbottabad resident, wondering why there were helicopters hovering over his small Pakistani city in the middle of the night, that alerted the world to the raid, when it was rapidly re-tweeted and spread. Such first hand accounts can, through crowd-sourcing, be the most liberating but also unsettling aspect of how social media is changing news and our relationship with the truth.

Take the recent National Public Radio podcast series Serial which become a global phenomenon. The presenter Sarah Koenig wondered whether Adnan Syed, a Pakistani American teenager had been unfairly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago. In a series of musings, that unfolded over real time week by week, she reexamined evidence, chatted for hours on the phone with the man himself, speculated with criminal justice professionals and even interviewed anonymous friends and acquaintances of Syed who thought he was a nice guy. The family of the young woman who was murdered, Hae Min Lee, have refused to take part, and the victim is almost completely missing from this thinking-out-loud exercise. Sometimes Koenig laughed and joked about her frustration over whether she thought Adnan was a psychopathic murderer or innocent. It’s striking how ignorant she is of and “fascinated” by “immigrant” culture. 

Let me let you in on a not-so secret secret. Crime reporters sit around speculating. We do it in court recesses, in bars and in newsrooms. It can be an outlet for some of the appalling things we’ve heard. But we know better than to put it out on the air when real people are affected. I’m not the only reporter unsettled by the reckless self -indulgence of Serial. As veteran US journalist Brian C Jones has blogged: “A developed story like this obligates the reporter to know — before going public — why it’s worthwhile, other than it’s “interesting.” Without an answer, it’s a little like digging up a coffin just to see what’s inside.”

It’s certainly been interesting to see how many of the middle class British fans of Serial sneer at the “depressing” nature of crime reporting on the news, but love Scandi-noir thrillers despite their sadistic, usually anti-female serial killing plotlines and the jazzy-music layered, soft-toned musings of NPR.

In 25 years of reporting yes I’ve seen some appalling sensationalized crime coverage. But much more often I’ve seen reporters carefully listen to the processes of a trial and present an accurate contemporaneous account of evidence and argument day by day up to conviction or acquittal. Many miscarriages of justice have been uncovered the same way, with careful research and fact checking. I’d urge everyone to sit in on a crown court trial in the public gallery. I always feel great awe for the dignified process of the law.

The thousands of discussion threads that have been spawned by audience fascination with Serial reveal the same human fascination with storytelling and sensation as Dickens’ serialized stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. The longtail of the internet has opened up the possibilities of exploring the minutiae of evidence, of seeing the same transcripts and raw data as the investigators and judges. It’s liberating and I wouldn’t turn the clock back. I certainly admire the way the podcast has engaged a mass audience with the workings of criminal law. But remember these are real human lives. And sometimes it’s only news reporting with its focus on facts that does them justice.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

Further reading

Serial and white reporter privilege (The Awl Nov 2014)

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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