Podcasts, Privacy and Publication

So this week I’m switching things up a bit. I’m still writing about what I’m listening to, but this time it’s a podcast, not music.

For my creative nonfiction class, I had to listen to the first two chapters of “S-Town,” an investigative journalism podcast in which the host, Brian Reed, goes to the remote town of Woodstock, Alabama to investigate an alleged murder and ends up unearthing the life story of a troubled man, John B. McLemore, who lived his entire life in a town he hated. The seven-episode podcast covers a wide range of issues such as poverty, LGBTQ identities, mental illness, suicide, grief, the small-town rumor mill and so much more.


As an investigative journalism major, I found the premise of the story enthralling. The first two episodes were the murder investigation, and then everything changes at the end of Episode II: Reed finds out the murder never actually happened, and John kills himself.

In the remaining five episodes, Reed follows the legal battle between John’s relatives and closest friend, and he learns more and more details about John’s personal life. The story is fascinating from beginning to end, and it continuously keeps the listener wondering what will happen next, but it seems to lose focus after a while. Any journalist can tell you that a story can change significantly between pitch and publication, and it might even end up with a completely different purpose than originally anticipated. However, it should at least still have a purpose. The purpose of “S-Town” — a euphemism for “Shittown,” as John calls Woodstock — gets lost in the story after it turns out that there was no murder. When I finished listening to the podcast, I thought, “This was interesting, but why was it published?”

I might not be wondering this if I hadn’t read an article in The Atlantic earlier today that raised a similar question. The author cites a literary debate that dates back four decades and can be summed up in one sentence: “Is it okay to confess another person’s pain for the sake of a really good story?” She lists several characters who might have to deal with painful consequences from their words, actions and personal information being broadcast. I wouldn’t have thought of that if someone hadn’t brought it up. Everyone whose words were broadcast spoke on the record, so Reed’s use of them wasn’t a betrayal of trust, but he still didn’t have to use them.

This is an extremely well-timed post because I have a communications law exam on Wednesday, and one of the topics in this unit is private facts, the publication of truthful yet embarrassing information. Courts ask three questions in private facts cases:

  1. Is it newsworthy?
  2. Is it a matter of public concern?
  3. Was the publication highly offensive to a reasonable person?

I honestly don’t think the legal battle over John B. McLemore’s estate was a matter of public concern. Maybe it was to Bibb County, Alabama, or just to Woodstock, but not to the entire nation or even the world. Some of the information was offensive, too. The men who allegedly had affairs with John are both married to women and implied to be in the closet. The world didn’t need to know their secrets.

The defendant in a private facts case can choose any of four arguments:

  1. The matter is newsworthy.
  2. The source consented to publication.
  3. The information was already public knowledge or in public records.
  4. The situation was in plain view.

“S-Town” will probably never go to court, but if it did, its only real defense would be that the sources spoke on the record. The information definitely wasn’t in plain view or public records; that’s kind of the point of investigative reporting.

As for newsworthiness, I think certain subjects were worth discussing. For example, one character was fined and lost his driver’s license after one driving offense, but he couldn’t get to work to pay the fine without driving, so he kept getting pulled over and fined. He called it “fine slavery.” The discussion about being gay in rural Alabama was relevant, although it could have been told with different characters in a different context. Regarding the rumored murder, several people had heard someone say he did it (even though he didn’t), and no one really raised an eyebrow. Those are conversations worth having, maybe even on a national scale.

Don’t get me wrong — “S-Town” was a great listen, and I might even listen to parts of it again. But it didn’t have to be published. I hope I never forget during my career that not every compelling story is fair game for the entire world to know.

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