True crime podcasts inspire citizen snoops

By Mary Kadlec

Logo of the world’s #1 podcast: Serial. Photo courtesy of Marc van der Chijs via Flickr.

In the last issue I wrote about the importance of a press free from censorship and dedicated to the truth.

I also examined how the field of journalism has evolved with the advancement of digital technology and the proliferation of information widely available to the masses.

As reporters and writers, we are supposed to stick to the facts without editorializing and abide by certain standards.

But where does the role of “citizen journalist” come into play?

Citizen journalism is a way for ordinary people to report the news by providing eyewitness accounts, photos and videos of breaking stories before news outlets are able to.

Examples of citizen journalism can be seen widely across social media platforms, blogs, and mainstream media sources.

As digital technology sharing increased in the last two decades, major organizations have attempted to capitalize on citizen journalism.

CNN tried their own citizen journalism initiative called iReport around 2006.

In 2007, AOL launched its version of hyperlocal citizen journalism called Patch.

Wikinews was launched in 2004 as an off-shoot to Wikipedia, but failed to capture the same popularity.

Likewise, CNN’s iReport was unable to compete with social media platforms and eventually overhauled the site in 2015. Patch floundered for many years before it was bought by Hale Global in 2014, but has made profitable growth ever since.

The difference from when sites like iReport and Patch were launched to now is that there are many more places for stories to be seen, there is more information available to more people, and there has been a notion growing that all information should be free and shared with anyone with very little consideration for fact checking and ethical implications.

But does getting more citizens involved make for better news?

Consider wildly popular podcasts like Serial, its spinoff Undisclosed, and Big Savage to name a few, which captivated listeners with memorable story lines and exhaustive hypothesizing.

Serial broke records as the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and had more than 300 million downloads after its first two seasons.

These podcasts examine true crime news stories, and in many cases, go even deeper than what is found in the police investigations. Up and Vanished, a podcast from 2016, led to the arrest in a 2005 cold case.

These documentary-style storytelling podcasts have captured the attention of thousands of true crime enthusiasts with keyboards and inadvertently spawned a new community of “vigilante detectives.”

There is no better place to observe how this is manifested than in the deep, dark webs of community forums and social media platforms.

With the Internet at their fingertips, these true crime citizen detectives can find photos, videos, addresses and documents to anonymously share with anyone willing to read.

Serial’s subreddit forum on the anonymous community platform Reddit has more than 60,000 members.

The threads in this forum range from innocent, curious chatter to downright scary trolling.
American director, producer, and playwright Aaron Sorkin once wrote, “Nothing has done more to make us dumber or meaner than the anonymity of the Internet.”

Especially in the age of social media, personal information has never been more widely available.

After listening to Big Savage, I was able to easily find the public social media pages of both people involved in the case and video clips on YouTube.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to look up more details. Furthermore, there is a strong desire to talk about it with other interested listeners.

Subjects of these popular podcasts have been stalked, harassed, and involuntarily pulled into the public domain.

Sure, this information is already on the Internet, but at what point is it taken too far?

Social media and community forums aren’t going anywhere and will continue to be valuable resources for news sharing, but in an age of online trolls, doxxing, and fake news, we shouldn’t allow our curiosity to do more harm than good.

Contact Mary Kadlec at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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