Why Serial is important for journalism

Transparency is key

The hit podcast Serial, a journalist’s exploration of whether a young man was wrongly convicted of murder, breaks new ground for our field. There are reams of articles and TV “newsmagazines” that expose the killers of the famous—and not so famous—in gruesome detail. What makes Serial so special and so meaningful for journalism is reporter Sarah Koenig’s transparency. She takes her listeners along with her as she ponders the innocence or guilt of Adnan Syed. As she says, she has no skin in the game. She is simply looking into a story about a promising high school student of Pakistani origin accused of killing his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, an exuberant, talented teenager of Korean descent.

For journalists listening to the series, Koenig does what we all do, all the time. We find an interesting topic and pursue it with great skepticism. Our goal is to bring to the public insights and understanding that people wouldn’t otherwise have. In some cases, our work has the potential for tremendous impact, as it does in this case. If she uncovers that Syed is indeed innocent (after spending 15 years in prison), his life could change dramatically.

What Koenig does that we don’t normally do is share our thoughts and views as we research a story. Normally we do all that work before publishing. We give our audience the most intelligent assessment we can. We go through the same hard work of interviewing and researching as Koenig—and we suffer through the same anxieties and soul searching. The difference is, we never make that work public. She breaks new ground because she makes journalism more transparent—and in my view, adds tremendous credibility to our field.

There are other calls to make journalism more transparent—not because people mistrust the profession but because openness adds to its credibility. Established journalism organizations have ethics policies, seasoned editors, and even experienced media lawyers when needed. Our audiences are hardly aware of all the vetting that goes on before a story is published or aired. That’s why Richard Gingras, head of Google News and a director at the International Center for Journalists, together with Sally Lehrman at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, are launching the Trust Project. They want to find cues that let readers know what goes on behind the scenes as a way of distinguishing great journalism from the tsunami of editorial detritus that claims to be high-quality.

Gingras and Lehrman are exploring how to capture the basic journalism process. Was a reporter or photographer truly on the scene for a story? Did a seasoned editor look for gaps, tighten the language, and poke for holes? Did a lawyer vet a controversial piece to ensure that it is bulletproof? And how, Gingras and Lehrman ask, do we convey this behind-the-scenes professionalism to readers? Their project is just getting off the ground.

I’m a proponent of this kind of transparency. Our mission—to serve as watchdogs in the public interest—leads us to cast the light on others. But by casting the light on ourselves, exposing how we come to conclusions (as in Serial’s case) or how we simply produce good journalism, we enhance our audience’s trust in our work.

Let the sun shine in.

Joyce Barnathan is president of the International Center for Journalists, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @icfjoyce.