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Ethics and Entertainment: What should be driving editorial choices?

Pod Bible revelations column about the future of podcasting


Ethics and Entertainment: What should be driving editorial choices?

How do we make podcasting futureproof? What needs to be done to challenge the industry to innovate and produce daring content? In “Revelations”, Meera Kumar pokes and prods the audio industry and its creations to reveal the shows worth listening to and their place in the zeitgeist…

I am very proud to have been named Best Entertainment Producer in last year’s APAs, but that moniker feels inaccurate considering my body of work consists almost entirely of factual narrative storytelling. So, I started to scrutinise the hypothesis that my work is prioritising entertainment. Is it journalism with flair or just a potboiler? Are we telling stories ethically and with purpose or are we just doing it to sell the intellectual property rights to the book/TV/streaming spin-off?

The stories our ancestors told, whether through song or creepy fairy tales, had purpose. They entertained us but they also taught us life lessons like ‘don’t share your home address with strangers when visiting grandma’. Oral storytelling transmitted knowledge that saved our lives and preserved history. Studies have even shown that stories help us process concepts differently compared to when the same concepts are presented to us as facts.

Now podcasts are the oral stories we use to elevate truths that are in the public interest, but we tell them with high production value compared to traditional journalism. This and the explosive growth of our medium is why I question how we tell stories now and whether we’ve strayed too much towards entertainment, prioritising big stories that make big money.

Many podcasts balance entertainment and purpose, with success. A handful of chart-topping true crime podcasts have even uncovered flaws in original police investigations and led to 40 year old murders being solved (The Teacher’s Pet) or freed a wrongly-convicted person from jail (Serial). Furthermore, both the teams behind Serial and Sweet Bobby received evidence and information from listeners during their investigations, which contributed to the resolution of the stories. These live investigations drummed up a lot of excitement, audience participation and attention. They were entertaining but they also did some good in the world.

That being said, these few successes may not justify the trending unwieldy ‘investigations’ and witch hunts. Often we’re ruthless in our pursuit of the best tape and the best access, with some podcast hosts recording phone calls (we don’t hear whether the person knows they’re being recorded for a podcast before the conversation, which is illegal in the UK if you intend to share them with a third party) and knocking on people’s doors out of the blue – completely disregarding a person’s right to privacy. But the more dramatic the tape, the higher the chance that the podcast will be featured on Best Of lists and the TV people will come knocking and ask to buy the IP. After all, every production company wants to follow the podcast to TV examples of Missing Richard Simmons, The Shrink Next Door, Song Exploder, and Limetown. That’s where the money is, I’m told (but not for the real people we’re actually telling a story about who never see a penny). The possible IP sale at the end of the rainbow is a massive driving force behind which stories get greenlit by companies and which gather dust in the Notes app on my phone. It’s a worrying sign that money is increasingly driving our editorial decisions, instead of whether the public needs to hear a story because of its potential real life impact. The ethics of buying and selling true stories was recently challenged on an episode of Lights Out, highlighting that contributors aren’t always aware of how a show is made or how their involvement may affect them, which is something that Ofcom is trying to address. There have been cases like S Town, in which the producers were sued for invasion of privacy, revealing personal information (including about a contributor’s sexuality, suicidal tendencies and financial affairs), and for not getting adequate consent from the contributor. The case was settled but the podcast is still widely debated for being more voyeuristic than journalistic. And yes, it is in development to be turned into a movie.

There are also worries that podcast productions are skewing actual justice, as in the case of The Teacher’s Pet trial where it was recorded that “the unrestrained and uncensored public commentary about the applicant’s guilt, is the most egregious example of media interference with a criminal trial process”. Mere months after the podcast was released the suspect was finally charged, but it very nearly jeopardised the case. It meant that there could be no jury in the trial (for fears that they may have been biased by the podcast), the trial was delayed in order to let speculation die down, and the suspect’s lawyers could use it to request that the judge permanently halt the prosecution. The judge claimed that the podcast was unbalanced and pushed a particular narrative using evidence that couldn’t be used in court. More worryingly, the judge said that the show “may in whole or in part have completely deprived some evidence of its usefulness”.

Podcasts may have the power to aid justice but they rarely start from a presumption of innocence until proven guilty and much of what is shared in a podcast would never hold up in court and would be discarded as hearsay. Whilst these deep dives into what a neighbour may have heard are captivating, it can be a dangerous and unethical presentation of a story – both for the people involved in the story, and for the producers who may be held liable in court. This is an even bigger risk for indy podcasters who may not check their scripts with lawyers prior to publishing, and may not have access to insurance. Take Only Murders in the Building for example – it’s a great streaming show but in reality their podcast could get them convicted of criminal contempt.

The concerns discussed above aren’t isolated to a single genre. Regardless, we want the most exciting tape and the as-yet-untold reveal but we have to be aware of the power of our shows over listeners and how every word we write could damn or distress a person, and – in some cases – subvert the course of justice. Indy producers in particular need to be cautious about how much personal information they reveal about contributors, be clear about getting consent, and be aware of the journalistic and legal principles that will keep their story from overstepping the line.

The line between ethical storytelling and entertainment is a line we draw ourselves as Producers. Yes, it would be great to sell the IP and then be able to tell more stories, but that shouldn’t be the deciding factor in which stories we tell or how we tell them. Yes, a show needs to be dramatic and entertaining in order to retain listeners but that needs to be balanced with journalistic integrity. And yes, it feels great when you get emotional tape and spicy rumours, but not at the risk of abandoning our duty of care.

Listen to Meera’s Podcast Recommendations:

Check out these episodes for more insight to ethical considerations in podcasting…

Ep 3 | Podcasts —> TV = Big Money? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This episode of Shameless Acquisition Target explores the podcast to TV phenomenon if you want to delve into it a bit more. Laura Meyer’s show has received lots of praise for its look at the podcast industry. Listen on your podcast app >>

Lights Out – ‘Accounts and Accountability’

Lights Out is a new show on BBC Radio 4 that explores a different topic each episode and encourages people to take a close listen. In this episode,  a documentary-maker hosts an open-call audition for subjects to star in her next project. Accounts and Accountability offers a dive into the ethics of buying and selling true stories. Listen on your podcast app >>

Meera KumarMeera is an award-winning Producer and Content Development Exec. She was selected as one of the Rising Stars of 2022 in the British Podcast Awards, was named Best Entertainment Producer in the 2022 Audio Production Awards, and has won two Lovie Awards. Meera has produced stories for the BBC, Sony Music, Universal, UK Parliament, Waitrose, and other well-known brands. Meera is Ambie nominated, and has had her work featured in The Guardian and The Times and selected as one of Spotify’s Best Episodes Of 2021.

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