As an aspiring journalist who grew up in Wyoming, it piques my interest when I see the state getting national attention. Usually, I’m disappointed by news about the latest legislative bill or some commentary about wealthy urbanites moving in.
But, never have I had a reaction like I did to “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” a new podcast series from the New York Times and Serial Productions.
The podcast follows Times reporter Kim Barker as she digs into a cold case murder that took place when she was a teenager living in Laramie in the ‘80s. Being familiar with “true crime” podcasts and having listened to previous Serial seasons, the premise of the podcast itself did not feel new to me. What did draw my attention was Barker’s description of Laramie, a place I know well and where many of my friends currently live and go to school.
In the first episode — before she even introduced the crime — Barker relays her own memories of Laramie. “I’ve always remembered it as a mean town,” she begins. “Uncommonly mean. A place of jagged edges and cold people.” She recounts that one of her classmates killed someone, while others killed themselves.
Barker then compares the town to Kabul, where she covered the war in Afghanistan, or Islamabad, where suicide bombs went off regularly, and concludes Laramie is worse than these places — all within the first three minutes of the podcast. Throughout the entire eight-episode series, I could not get rid of the bad taste Barker’s initial description of Laramie left in my mouth.
I understand disliking Wyoming. I have spent considerable time coming to terms with my own experiences growing up in the state, something I’m still processing as a college student living away from home. I may have misgivings, but I would not compare it to an active warzone. This approach, among other things, risks minimizing the experiences of those living in warzones, even though I acknowledge Barker did write a book about that subject.
With that initial framing, Barker’s investigation comes across as self-indulgent. While the final episode develops into a nuanced conversation about what NPR described as the “unreliability of memory and the slipperiness of truth,” Barker cannot guarantee a listener will stick out to the end, and not already be tainted by the initial negative depiction. Starting off calling a community “mean” and “violent” guarantees that imagery is what the audience takes with them through the story. The depiction risks turning members of the community who disagree with her portrayal away from the story, when they could have benefited from the final introspection. Since one cannot be certain the audience will hold out for the nuance, what does one gain by chancing it?
I’m not discrediting the reporting — it is an interesting narrative about botched police work and small-town bigotry. However, it seems exploitative for the narrative to start by bashing the entire community instead of focusing on the specific institutions and individuals responsible for the crime and subsequent misconduct.
Parachute journalism makes me understand why Wyomingites often don’t trust outsiders. This is something Barker notes when, at the beginning of episode 3, she talks about how her new red Prius, New York license plates and New York Times business cards may “work against” her in Wyoming.
However, Barker does not seem to fully acknowledge the position of power she holds. When she interviews the victim’s sister, Barker ends the interview by assigning “homework.” She comes across as cavalier when she initially decides to “make a pit stop in Laramie, poke around a little and see what [she] can see.”
Why do true-crime journalists feel they are the ones who need to swoop in, make judgements and save these communities from themselves? By the end of the podcast, Barker isn’t closer to determining who killed the victim, and the victim’s family is no nearer to the closure Barker hoped to bring.
Rural communities like Laramie should not be casualties of journalists’ self-actualization journeys. When journalists present a community as a monolith of “meanness” or “coldness,” they turn it into a character in the story shaped for their own needs.
Really, though, places like Laramie are complex communities filled with all sorts of people. They may have hard edges, but they are also home to folks trying to improve the lives of their neighbors.
The subjects of the podcast are real people with lives directly impacted by these kinds of projects. By the time Barker acknowledges the people she interviewed were actually very kind to her, there are fewer than 15 minutes left in the podcast.
Broadcasting a negative picture of the American West to the New York Times’ white elite East coast audience stigmatizes the people who actually live there. This approach potentially causes further retreat into homogenous communities and continues the cycle of corruption and bigotry Barker was attempting to critique.