RE-STOKED: Serial-ized Thinking (1/12/2015)

Speaking of things that began at the beginning, and when they got to the end, stopped... We kicked off this newsletter by, in part, praising the methods the podcast Serial, and its producers, employed in constructing a narrative and creating an experience for listeners.

We initially praised Serial for its approach to reporting - something we thought market researchers should attempt to emulate. We thought it promised immersive and experiential reporting and fact-checking with a healthy dose of skepticism. But as the story unfolded, we - as so many other listeners - became certain that there would be no 'answer' at the end of the series. And perhaps worse, we found it hard not to see the biases that others were pointing out, even if we think they're just a bit different than many have described.

We wonder if Serial, in the end, bit off more than it was prepared to chew. Listeners fell hard for Serial, just as we did, loving everything about its approach, its production values, and its story - and redditors have made it a cause. But, as in most things in popular culture, the backlash emerged almost as fast. People criticized Serial and its producers for the way they told the story, leveling accusations that included the exploitation of murdered young women, racism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and for being precious or naive.

Looked at one way, these criticisms fell into one large bucket - people expected Serial and its producers to be better, ethicallyMany wanted advocacy, not the usual 'view from nowhere' journalism.  They wanted Serial to take a stand - and depending on the listener's worldview, that stand should be their stand.

We think the overarching bias the show displayed is in favor of the status quo. We think that the show's producers have a general deference for people in positions of authority, for what is deemed normal or typical, even when they're obviously wrong. People tend to assume that defendants are guilty; that judges, lawyers and police deserve respect and deference; that only guilty people don't testify on their own behalves; that what is normal practice is best practice.

And the producers of Serial demonstrated many of those assumptions. They told us they didn't think anti-Muslim sentiment had anything to do with the trial, and then spent a few minutes demonstrating otherwise. They told us they thought certain police practices were legit, even as they described those practices, which to lay people and attorneys are prima facie corrupt.  They told us they didn't think the defense attorney did a bad job, despite also recounting her failings, misdeeds and poor performance.

Were they pulling our legs? Were they provoking a conversation about what is acceptable behavior for people in power? Were they forcing the question about what we find acceptable in the criminal justice system? Or were they just showing us their bias, a bias in favor of the powers that be, the status quo?

We aren't sure. But we are more sure than ever that it's critical when telling stories for the storyteller to reckon with what their perspectives and biases will bring to the story. We don't need 'perfect' (e.g., unbiased) storytellers and we definitely shouldn't necessarily make editorial assignments a casting decision. But reporters and researchers need to acknowledge when we might be wrong. We need to look for signals that we might be misinterpreting something.  We need to examine the assumptions we bring to the investigation and to the story.

In the end, the producer of Serial said that while she was by no means certain of anything, she also felt that there was simply not enough evidence to convict Adnan Syed. We didn't see the storytellers ever really reckon with their biases. We saw them simply rest, somewhat uncomfortably, on the scaffolding provided by the evidentiary burdens of the criminal justice system.  

That might be a comfort to people who believe in Adnan's innocence - but if Sarah Koenig were on his jury, it's doubtful she would have really voted to acquit. As WNYC's On the Media noted in a recent podcast looking at True Crime, it's very rare for juries to deadlock, for jurors not to conform to the majority. Would the producers of Serial, or many of their listeners have had the courage of their conviction (a conviction in favor of doubt, by the way), and voted to acquit? It's hard to believe they would - because we have to do more than privately question our biases.

We need to actually do the work to undermine our own assumptions, to check our biases, to reinterpret things accurately. We can't stop merely at saying we know that biases are common here. In a recent article by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, they cited an experiment comparing outcomes between groups who were merely informed about a common bias and groups who were told that most people try to overcome that bias. The latter group tended to overcame the bias; the former group exaggerated it.

When we accept biases as common, in other words, we allow them to take deeper roots. When we actively challenge our biases, we cut them out. For researchers, product strategists, designers, and innovators, the opportunity is to constantly question our own assumptions - and to pledge to do better. To not succumb to easy narratives and 'obvious' explanations, to a narrative drafted by those in power, or a history written solely by the victors. To invent the future, we have to constantly question what we know, and what we think we know. We have to believe that we could be wrong - and that all the people we have been raised to trust, or to defer to, could be wrong, too.

Without embracing a deeply held, challenging and complicated and uncomfortable skepticism, research is just reportage (and journalism is just propaganda).

Happy New Year, everyone.