Bramble On: A jinx in serial reporting?
April 16, 2015
Had I read the opening lines of Sarah Koenig's 1999-murder-investigation podcast "Serial" in a book, I would have undoubtedly kept reading.
"For the last year, I've spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999 – or if you want to get technical about it, and apparently I do, where a high school kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999," Koenig opened.
Had I read the last lines of HBO's documentary series about wealthy heir Robert Durst's murder cases "The Jinx" as the last lines in a novel – which I will not quote because it would spoil the show for those who haven't watched it – I would have closed the book and sat in silence for a few minutes letting the ending fully sink in. They were powerful.
Koenig's line was a great piece of writing, planting the seed of curiosity like every episode of her podcast did week after week. The Jinx's last words were a great piece of producing and directing work, creating an ending to a documentary worthy of any iconic show or movie. That approach made Serial the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads on iTunes, according to CNN. That approach gave The Jinx one of the most shocking finales a show has ever had. And both productions were so excruciatingly gripping and groundbreaking in their style that some critics have said they have changed the future of entertainment.
I believe it's true, but for the past few months, and moreso the last few days after watching The Jinx, I've been trying to figure out exactly what Serial and The Jinx are – or if you want to get technical, and apparently I do, if I can call them journalism, or if they are simply journalistic investigative work with rearranged and repackaged facts to deliver a really good story, an addictive piece of entertainment, and not much more.
In their format, they can both be considered journalism. The Jinx is a documentary and Serial is a podcast spinoff of "This American Life." The stories both revolve around serious journalistic work and actual fact gathering, but the delivery of those facts is what differs from the great majority of journalistic work. They focus more on the suspense, on the addictive aspects that make the listener or watcher want to keep consuming the story a lot less than they do on delivering information.
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Journalists have always been creative, when the story merits it, to engage the audience, but the end goal is usually to deliver information that might provide useful knowledge that affects the audience's lives. The story of a single person can sometimes represent what many more are going through, and thus address a larger issue. With both of the shows, problems and limitations within the legal system are exposed, but in neither show is that the point of focus.
Eliana Dockterman said it perfectly in her Time magazine article "How The Jinx and Serial Strain the Blurry Ethical Lines of Crime reporting," they both buried the lead to enhance storytelling. They teased the audience with facts to increase intrigue.
Additionally, I've asked myself, "has reality TV evolved into something that can be consumed without any entertainment diet remorse? Is this what reality TV looks like when someone adds a little bit of depth to it?"
I am not entirely sure how I feel about viewing someone's life as entertainment. Perhaps this is how those who a few years ago were strung out on the "Jersey Shore" felt when they watched it.
For now I'm stuck in the middle, completely impressed with what both productions delivered and with my journalistic superego at the very least asking if the approach the producers took are fully consistent with journalistic ethics. One thing is for sure, when the next season of Serial is released, I will be waiting week after week for my next fix.