Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thinking Critically About The Serial The Podcast

Marathon, FL

My sister Nancy told me about a cool podcast Serial.  Nancy and her daughter Alex, enjoyed it during their morning commute. The first season was about the murder of Hae Min Lee, and the accused Adnan Syed.   Nancy said that each week they were jerked in opposite directions; surely guilty this episode, surely not guilty the next episode.

The second season of Serial, is about an even more controversial case; that of Bowe Bergdahl.

I just finished the 12 episodes of season 1.  My reaction was not like Nancy's.  During those podcasts, I kept thinking about how unfair it was to hear some of the facts and voices presented.  The case involved high school kids that in today's world delight in telling their peers sensational stories.  Texts, tweets, and short phone calls are their preferred media. Truth is not a priority in those stories.

I kept thinking about the American rules of evidence, and how prejudicial it would have been to let a jury hear that stuff.  But isn't that what the Serial audience is expected to do; act like a jury?  That's what Nancy and Alex did.  But a jury severely bombarded with inappropriate evidence.   Of course, and audience is not restricted to the legal restrictions of a jury, but an audience can come to wrong conclusions about persons still living.

Serial put lots of time and money into this project.  More than a year, and probably well North of one or two million dollars.   Listeners who might want to fact check what they heard on Serial, don't have the ability to match that effort.

What I'm talking about is critical thinking.  That is a quality that unfortunately is becoming rarer in today's USA.   The producers of Serial were very intelligent.  They posed the correct critical thinking questions.  "Speculation is unproductive."  "This evidence might be prejudicial."  But then they spoiled it by telling their own conclusions, thus contaminating the audience.  In the final episode, where I expected them to say, "Now make up your own minds." they instead presented the conclusion of Sarah, the on-air personality.

People very much want to be told what to think.  Independent critical thinking is uncomfortable for them.  As evidence of that, let me point to religion.  The majority of the public are religious to some extent.  "Think critically," and "Have faith," are about as opposite as two things can be.  The one thing that you are not supposed to do in church (of any religion I ever heard of) is to think critically about what you hear.

I was about to Google "journalistic ethics" to find ways of criticising Serial.  But then I realized that every Hollywood movie or TV show based on history comes with a viewpoint.  It contaminates the audience into believing whatever that viewpoint is.  How could you not do so when telling a story?   The only way to avoid it entirely, is to dryly recite only the facts.

What is a fact? It is something that is verifiable.  It may be perfectly reasonable to believe that a killer who beheaded his victim intended to kill him, but that can never be a verifiable fact.

But if story tellers confined themselves to verifiable facts, then they commit an even bigger sin -- they become boring and the public doesn't listen to the story.

Here's a suggestion.  Serial should do a third season retrospectively looking at Serial.   What are the ethics and limitations of reporting?  Can a story be told while being totally objective? If not, then how should presenters think about that?  How should the audience think about that? How should they listen to political speeches or sermons?  How are audiences manipulated psychologically?  Why?  What are the alternatives?  In other words, Serial itself would make an excellent case study in an exploration of the interlocking subjects of critical thinking, persuasion, journalism, and justice.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the podcast Serial because of exactly the issue you bring up, there are many points of data for which to reach a conclusion. How can one sort through it all? How can one remain open to listen to all accounts even though you bring your own judgement based on who is telling you the information? I enjoyed hearing what the journalist wanted to investigate (e.g. the cell tower records). Interestingly, the case is now back in court mostly due to the invalidity of the facts presented based on the cell phone tower records.

    I also enjoyed hearing how the journalist was able to track down people and who wished to speak and who wished to remain silent. Remember, the journalists are not police or lawyers so they only have access to a few pieces of the puzzle. I don't think it is a bad thing to give their opinion, after all, they are simply helping connect a few pieces together for their audience. Critical thinking for me comes from having the pieces in front of me and letting me try to form structure, or pattern out of the data. I realize it is not all the pieces so my ability to make conclusions is impaired, but that is a given premise of the series.

    Our justice system is one whereby people (lawyers, expert witnesses, etc.) must solve the puzzle using the facts of the event. It must be based on the facts and sometimes more importantly, based on facts omitted. The facts are not always right or true. Sometimes they are based on one person's voice. It is no different than what the people in this podcast said to the journalist with the exception that they are not under oath, well, and the fact that much more time has passed fading the details in their memories.


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