Issue 223,  published August 23, 2019

A debt of a kind

Crime Junkies, a popular true crime podcast that’s reportedly drawn television interest, found itself whipped up in controversy in recent weeks when a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter accused the team of using her reporting for an episode about a 2002 murder without proper attribution. That accusation begot more accusations, which sprung up around other episodes, and the saga was sufficiently visible to the point that it drew write-ups from mainstream publications like Variety, BuzzFeed News, and the New York Times.

The podcast initially responded by quietly pulling down several of the inadequately-sourced episodes, and the team eventually issued a statement officializing the response. “We recently made the decision to pull down several episodes from our main feed when their source material could no longer be found or properly cited,” the team wrote in a statement posted on its Facebook group. “Since then, we’ve worked to put additional controls in place to address any gaps moving forward.” On Friday, the removed episodes were re-inserted into circulation, with additional citations listed on the associated blog posts published on the show’s website. (Whether those additions are enough is another discussion, but we’ll leave this off for now.)

I wrote this story up for Vulture early Friday, where I sought to tie together a few threads: among them, the notion of the podcast ecosystem still being a Digital Wild West (DWW?), the requisite grey-area fuzziness and lack of governance around standards of ethical publishing that comes from its relative DWW newness, the prominence of the true crime podcast genre within that gray area, and, to some extent, the ramifications of certain podcasts being able to achieve popularity and success while operating deep within that fuzziness.

But it seems that the issues of ethics and standards embedded in this story won’t simply be limited to true crime podcasts. In fact, we may begin to see the conversation spread out towards other popular long-running podcasts from other genres.

On Sunday, the Slate editor-podcaster-author Josh Levin posted a Twitter thread laying out the case that The Dollop, a very popular history/comedy podcast, had committed similar infractions using Levin’s research and reporting on Linda Taylor, a.k.a. The Welfare Queen, which was initially published as a 2013 Slate feature and later as a full-length book that dropped earlier this summer. He also highlighted another accusation, one raised by Damn Interesting’s Alan Bellows about the podcast’s episode called “The Three Jesuses.”

There’s a good deal to unpack from all the components Levin laid out in his Twitter thread, which includes various arguments and justifications brought out by The Dollop team, and I encourage you to parse through the whole thing. But the heart of Levin’s critique lies in this line: “Whether it’s technically infringement or not, whether it’s fair use or not, this behavior from The Dollop is certainly unethical/ungenerous/rude/shitty.” Dollop co-host Dave Anthony apologized on the show’s subreddit shortly after Levin’s Twitter thread went out.

Looking over the situation with Crime Junkies and The Dollop, I can’t help but think about the notion of technical debt — i.e. a software development concept referring to long-term costs associated with limited/patchwork/easy solutions implemented in the short-term. This stuff with podcasting and emerging attribution conduct standards is kind of a variant, I think. Between its ~Digital Wild West~ nature and its extended history of being generally overlooked (until recently), podcasting has long operated in an environment where certain shows — particularly in certain formats, e.g. the let’s-call-it “secondary research as a performance” formats — could achieve considerable levels of success on top of under-developed and ultimately unsustainable ethical conduct standards. For those, a kind of debt was accrued across this period.

As podcasting continues to grow in popularity, commercial power, and stakes, so will general expectations surrounding the conduct of its participants, which could bring the… let’s call it “conduct debt” (awkward, clunky, I know) … of those shows into the foreground. Feels like we’re at the beginning of a tipping point, one in which there will be more debt payments to come.