We listened to the remarkable (and very popular) podcast, Serial, last week. It is a milestone in the use of our new media in that the producers took the classic radio documentary style and applied it completely to the series available only through the podcast online. They did not skimp on its style or depth. It was the kind of radio documentary that I would have loved to have been a part of back in the day. Hopefully this is the first major breakthrough of a new way of doing news and media in the 21st Century.
For those who may not have heard about it, here's the synopsis of the 12-week series: Serial tells one story- one true story- over the course of the 12-weeks. It was developed by the creative folks at This American Life. From their home page:
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.It was intriguing, baffling, enticing and addicting. We binge listened over a couple days last week. I have several different thoughts from the series but the first one kind of sets the stage for me.
Sarah Koenig, who hosts Serial, first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she's been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators' notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence - all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers.
I realized as I was listening and as Sarah used information and tapes of actual police interviews how in many ways detectives and substance abuse counselors can come at their jobs with a similar approach. One detective basically said that his approach was to believe no one - and everyone. (At least that's how I heard it.) There is always an active suspicion that they live with.
They also face the danger of looking for information to confirm what you think you already know. This "confirmation bias" takes facts, data, bits of information- and, when it supports the hypothesis- accepts it. When it doesn't support - well, let's just ignore it. Part of what Sarah Koenig did in developing the shows was put these bits of information out on the table- conflicting and confirming- and show how the detectives (and we the listeners) react. Fascinating.
That's where I start with this. I will have a couple more posts in the coming weeks. But if you get the chance, listen to the series. Start from the beginning and listen in order. You will be amazed by the skill of the producers.