Serial, Social Anthropology & Investigative Journalism

If you haven’t heard of the podcast phenomenon Serial, you are one of the very few left. Hosted by Sarah Koenig, and with it’s very own spin off show Undisclosed, the series follows the story of Adnan Syed, the man accused and currently serving time for the murder of Hae Min Lee – a crime he strenuously denies committing.

But what has Serial got to do with social anthropology, and what has social anthropology got to do with investigative journalism?

First it’s worth noting, in it’s most basic sense, what social anthropology actually is: “the study of humankind; the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development”. Similarly, for many investigative journalists, human behaviour is at the core of their work – what drives people, how organisations and groups interact with one another, and why some behaviours are accepted in certain cultures but shunned by others.

Rather ironically, in a podcast by the Annenberg School for Communication – Serial and the Possibilities of Podcasting – Kevin Gotkin, Corrina Laughlin and Mariam Durrani examine how the face of investigative journalism and social anthropology is evolving due to the rising popularity of podcasts. It considers not only how we contextualise information and tell stories, namely via tone, voice and phrasing, but how this differs from the cues communicated by the written word.

The boundaries of investigative journalism have also shifted with the popularity of sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Undeniably, the dawn of the ‘tech age’ has brought with it a whole new set of behaviours – the culture of instant gratification, the urge to update and publicly share intimate details of everyday life, and the vlog/blogosphere explosion of recent years.

So how are these all connected, and why does it matter?

Well, you could argue that it all comes down to communication. And it matters because how we communicate can have a direct effect on our behaviour, and how we interpret future information.

Crucial to this is the source of information itself, and whether we deem it trustworthy or reliable. Take YouTube for example, the video format allows us to pick up on visual cues such as body language, as well as aural cues such as voice, tone and intonation. Twitter is also an interesting and relevant source of information – we can recycle and retweet updates, reliability is also influenced by follower numbers, and the limited number of characters forces users to be more economical, direct and considerate of ‘buzzwords’. Facebook on the other hand is built around a network of friends, we can like, share and comment on what we see, and thus the information circulated on the site tends to be deemed socially accepted by our peers and subsequently more valuable to ourselves.

Unsurprisingly then, journalistic outlets are also shifting to reflect this new trend in how we share information. What was once limited to print and television has found itself transformed into podcasts and vlogs, you need only look at the success of Serial and the popularity of Vice on YouTube.

The result is a bordeless network of communication and sharing platforms, and for social anthropology, the field is more current, alive and exciting than ever before.

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