Culture Vulture

The battle between ethics and eyeballs

The S-Town podcast and docudrama The Keepers are a contrast in balancing investigative journalism and the need for impartiality

There is a giant grey area where investigative journalism shades into voyeurism.

Two recent binge marathons gave me pause to think about the finer nuances of the difference between the two.

Having been a fan of the hit podcast Serial, I made it a point to listen to the producing team's new podcast, S-Town.

S-Town is an even bigger hit than Serial. The New York Times reported on June 16 that it had been downloaded more than 40 million times since it was released on March 28.

I was gripped by producer Brian Reed's lyrical evocation of the life of one man, Mr John McLemore, a Southern man in the United States who had contacted Reed with a tip-off about an alleged murder and cover-up in his small home town of Woodstock, Alabama.

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.

Mr McLemore, a keen horologist, amateur landscape artist and full-time grouch, has nicknamed his hometown S**t Town because of the alleged corruption, poverty of both the material and spiritual varieties, as well as an infrastructural collapse reflecting a benign institutional neglect that has devastating and, seemingly, irreversible consequences on the lives of ordinary folk.

While the podcast's first episode seems engaged in the exploration of a possible cover-up of a murder, involving the scion of a rich family in the county, this turns out to be a red herring as subsequent episodes veer off in different directions. The series becomes an atmospheric evocation of a poor white Southern community in the ivy-dripping, decaying decadence, Southern Gothic tradition of novelists William Faulkner or Carson McCullers.

There are vivid portraits of Mr McLemore, his friend and protege Tyler Goodson as well as assorted eccentrics who orbit in and out of Mr McLemore's life, captured in lengthy soundbites from recorded conversations.

I was quickly drawn into the novelistic narrative, which makes intriguing detours into the art of restoring antique clocks and fire gilding, and the microscopic examination of the interior life of Mr McLemore, whose lilting Southern accent, florid eloquence and autodidactic knowledge made him a larger-than-life protagonist worthy of fangirl adoration.

The shocking twist at the end of the second episode served both as a cliffhanger that drew me further into the series and as a warning bell that set off some of my journalistic alarms. Evidently, I wasn't the only journalist discomfited by some of the storytelling decisions made by Reed and his team. Google S-Town, and some of the most popular articles that pop up are opinion pieces from respected publications such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, discussing the ethical implications of telling such intimate anecdotes about Mr McLemore, a man who can no longer control the narrative.

Given that Reed and his team come from a journalistic background, I trust that they have also considered the ethical dilemmas of invading a subject's privacy in so thorough a fashion. But I think where S-Town crosses the line is the point where Reed's point of view and storytelling need override the personal concerns of Mr McLemore.

S-Town is beautifully produced - from the careful assembling of the storyline to its stylised approach, which works skilfully for literary effects. It is a very successful piece of storytelling in the creative non-fiction genre and the social media-savvy platform (podcasting) that seems destined to shape a new kind of investigative journalism and consumption.

While I admire its technical facility, I also recognise that the subject of this narrative has been put up for my consumption, in a kind of edutainment package that makes me uneasy even as I chase the story to its conclusion.

In this respect, Netflix's latest crime docudrama The Keepers offers an instructive contrast.

Equally, if not more gripping than S-Town, The Keepers follows a pair of female retirees turned amateur gumshoe detectives: Ms Abbie Schaub and Ms Gemma Hoskins.

The graduates of the Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore are trying to solve a cold case: the 1969 murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a 26-year-old nun and teacher there.

Like S-Town, the power of The Keepers lies in the multiple narratives told in the first person by various parties involved in the investigation: the two women pursuing the case; the detectives who investigated it then and now; as well as the other students who remember bits and pieces of the overall picture.

Unlike S-Town, however, The Keepers never becomes a self-consciously literary exercise. Director Ryan White is admirably restrained and low-key in his approach. He presents conflicting memories with a good journalist's stout commitment to impartiality and scrupulously adds context, even when it might be convenient or easy to streamline the narrative in satisfyingly linear ways for viewers.

What emerges from The Keepers is not just detailed portraits of the main protagonists, but also a chilling document of power, abuse and collusion in the authority structures of Baltimore.

The subjects of The Keepers tell a gut-wrenching story, but it is evident that their story, in terms of what it reveals about the failures of Baltimore's justice system, needs to be told for wrongs to be corrected. This is a contrast to S-Town, where the focus is on one man's life and, arguably, while some of his tragedies can be blamed on institutional failures, S-Town's presentation of Mr McLemore's personal trials as reality-show entertainment crosses the line.

Journalists often defend the stance that certain stories need to be, and should be, told in the name of public interest. And certainly, the uncovering of injustices in all strata of society has been something of a raison d'etre for the fourth estate since the earliest days of Fleet Street.

Yet alongside this salutary ambition, there has also existed a parallel form of yellow journalism that appeals to readers' baser instincts, with sensational headlines, lurid photographs and even made-up interviews and content.

In the age of social media, which privileges easily consumable hot media, it seems as though voyeurism is the inevitable victor. Certainly, the rise of hit true-crime podcasts and documentaries such as S-Town and The Keepers seems in line with this trend.

But the different ways in which these two new media hits attempt to tell their stories, using novelistic structures and old-school journalistic approaches, can also be seen as a way of taking the kind of traditional longform investigative journalism once championed in print into a brave new media world.

I, for one, am curious to see where this constant battle between ethics and eyeballs will lead. In the meantime, I foresee lots more interesting stories waiting to unfold.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'The battle between ethics and eyeballs'. Print Edition | Subscribe