By Mary Shannon Wells
Even if you didn’t listen to it yourself, the murder mystery podcast “Serial,” which was monumental for both investigative journalism and the podcast platform, got a lot of media attention. Despite its popularity, “Serial” brought with it some ethical issues for the field of investigative journalism, which often hangs out in the grey area of media ethics.
Last week, “Serial’s” producer Julie Snyder released a new podcast series in full. This time, Snyder teamed up with Brian Reed, producer for “This American Life.” The new podcast is called “S-Town,” and in the beginning, it seems to be heading in the same murder mystery direction as its predecessor. But by the second episode — warning, spoilers ahead — it’s clear that “S-Town” is much different than “Serial.” Like “Serial,” however, “S-Town” has its own ethical implications.
A little background: “S-Town” follows a man named John B. McLemore, who lives in Woodstock, Alabama, or as he likes to call it, “Shittown,” hence the name of the podcast. I won’t go into too much detail, but McLemore is what many people would call “eccentric,” and what Southern people would call “a character.”
“This is brilliant, meaningful, ambitious podcasting with the potential to elevate the medium,” wrote Aja Romano in a piece for Vox.
What starts out as a look into a murder McLemore wants Reed to solve becomes an up-close view of the quirky, unstable life of McLemore, a queer antique clock restorer with a hedge maze in his backyard who seems to have jumped straight out of a Southern novel.
Regardless how interesting McLemore’s story, “S-Town” raised many ethical eyebrows, even of those that enjoyed the piece.
“Occasionally, you may feel a twinge of ethical doubt as Reed digs up secrets, conducts potentially incriminating interviews and blithely presents disturbing details,” warned Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic.
Kornhaber wasn’t the only one writing about his discomfort with “S-Town.”
“Early on, I wondered if it was right to be holding a microphone up to McLemore and broadcasting him to the world,” wrote Sara Larson in The New Yorker.
The biggest ethical questions come about after the second episode, in which — here’s the spoiler — Reed receives a call that McLemore has commited suicide.
“When I got to that point in the series, I wondered if they should have made this podcast at all, no matter how tempting its details, no matter how sensitively it was handled,” Larson wrote.
So the bomb is dropped — our main character, our main link to this murder mystery in nowhere Alabama, is dead. How does the podcast continue without McLemore’s voice? Romano was deeply disturbed by the ethical and emotional implications this caused for the podcast.
“But it’s also journalism exploring the life of a private citizen who struggled intensely with mental health issues and never had a chance to consent to some of the facts that S-Town reveals about him,” Romano wrote. “As I listened to the podcast’s final episodes, I really struggled with this aspect of the narrative, feeling as though I was violating the privacy of a man who had explicitly invited Reed to investigate a death — never his own.”
Romano brought up multiple facets of the story that raised ethical issues. At the front of the lines crossed by Reed was the issue of privacy. Should Reed have continued pursuing McLemore’s story after he died?
The “Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications” textbook, written by Jay Black and Chris Roberts, cites Ferdinand Schoeman’s definition of privacy:
“When privacy embraces some aspects of autonomy, it is defined as control over the intimacies of personal identity. At the broadest end of the spectrum, privacy is thought to be the measure of the extent to which an individual is afforded the social and legal space to develop the emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and moral powers of the autonomous agent.”
Even looking at Reed’s actions with Schoeman’s widest lenses, Reed violated McLemore’s privacy. And under the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics’ stipulation to “minimize harm,” journalists should not invade a source’s privacy.
Reed not only kept chasing after the details of McLemore’s life, but he published information that McLemore asked him to keep off the record when he was alive. But do dead people have a right to privacy? Reed thought, at least in McLemore’s case, no. Romano said that Reed gave three reasons for revealing that information.
“First, he’s had on-the-record corroboration from other people about the substance of John’s comments. Second, the information John shared led to a greater understanding of who he was,” Romano wrote of Reed’s justifications. “And third, since John is an atheist, he doesn’t believe in afterlife repercussions, so according to his own belief, he’s dead and buried and can’t be hurt by any of this information.”
Although Reed believed that “trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do,” his longing to correctly and fully tell McLemore’s story brings up other ethical questions, too. Is Reed too loyal to McLemore? While journalists always owe a certain level of loyalty to their sources, too much loyalty could end up in a story that is skewed in the source’s favor and that doesn’t give the general public the most honest and true version of that story.
“But S-Town finds true novelty as the true-crime narrative and touristic vibe fades and Reed starts obsessing over McLemore himself,” Kornhaber wrote. “The results are a monument to one man’s life.”
The unique nature of the podcast and Reed’s pursuit of McLemore’s story sparked my interest to wonder about Reed’s motives. Teleology, or consequentialism, is an ends-to-a-means-based practice in decision-making. Even though “S-Town” is already a topic of conversation in its first week, does the podcast’s success justify Reed’s sticky steps in an ethical gray area? According to different facets of consequentialism, probably so. As long as the end-result is beneficial, it doesn’t matter what means brought about that end. But is “S-Town” for the greater good of all people, or does it provide more good than it does harm for people, including McLemore? In utilitarianism, a synonym for consequentialism, the actions taken to reach the endpoint or “payoff” can be justified, regardless of ethical implications.
And in talking about consequentialism, it’s hard to ignore that loyalties come up again. Is Reed only being loyal to himself to gain fame or money from the podcast, therefore falling to egoism? Or did he do the “right thing” because “S-Town” could be a compelling innovation for the furtherance of podcasts as a medium for investigative journalism?
For that matter, should “S-Town” even be considered journalism? Or is it purely for entertainment?
Writing a series of questions in a row seems like an attempt at achieving a higher word count, but “doing ethics” requires asking tough questions. These are the kinds of questions that ethical dilemmas bring about, and mediums like podcasts (and the ethical issues they raise) will continue to alter the fluid definition of journalism.