There’s a new hot podcast out there right now that’s topping This American Life (for all of you podcast nerds) and it’s Serial, a journalistic investigation of the 15-year-old murder of high schooler Hae Min Lee and her boyfriend who was convicted, Adnan Syed, currently serving a life sentence in prison. Serial swept through the office like the audio version of the black plague, but instead of dying a horrible death, people were hooked on the real-life mystery: Is Adnan Syed innocent?
I do admit that the series itself is addicting; I download each new episode immediately to satisfy my craving. Sarah Koenig, the narrator, does a good job of storyline pacing and unfurling which forces the audience to groan whenever she says “Next time on Serial.” However, as the show moves forward, I grow more and more concerned about the ethics of the podcast.
Sensationalization of a true story
Let’s start with the sensationalization of a true story. At first, the podcast seemed like a complete and unbiased re-evaluation of what seemed to be a shaky conviction of Adnan in order to gain public awareness for the Innocent Project, maybe? This was backed by Sarah Koenig’s professional tone throughout the episodes; she approached it in an objective manner, analyzing the case from many different angles. The release of each new episode just meant that the audience could follow the pace of her investigation after having enough time to process the last episode. However, that the weekly podcast unveils itself in a form generally saved for fictional series such as CSI and Law & Order allows audiences to sometimes blur the line between reality and fiction. Suddenly, the people involved in the case of Lee’s death are being speculated on Reddit like characters in a fiction book, as if truth can be so cleverly debated.
It’s also hard to separate self-serving behavior and motive, especially in media. Always, without fail, the first things you hear before the podcast starts is the MailChimp sponsor ad, which leads to the question: how can something monetized not have a self-serving purpose? They garnered a large fan base for Serial because of the way the story is told, through use of personal interviews and rich backstories for each character that allows empathy… but is it for the good of Adnan’s case or for the podcast rankings?
In media today, because so many things are sensationalized, these same things also become trivialized; few are able to recognize the gravity of certain cases such as Adnan’s.
The adverse effects on Adnan and those related to the case
And what about the effects of this podcast on Adnan and the people who were involved in the original investigation? What about his family and friends that are yet again put through such a wringing process, this time to appease the masses?
Sarah Koenig’s diligent journalism allows us to trace the evolution of Adnan’s mindset as her investigation continues. At the beginning of the podcast, 30-some hours of phone calls prior, Adnan seems pretty set in where he is, unfazed by the unearthing of previous events. But, as the hours pile up, we can sense that he is becoming tortured about the fragility of the case built against him, much like Koenig is—with one key difference: he is the one who has to live with the consequences.
For example, on Rabia Chaudry’s blog, she seems tortured by how Koenig portrays the entire case and yet allows Koenig to continue with her style of investigation, rife with withheld information and missing clues. Not only is she and all of Adnan’s family put to the sidelines in the podcast (for objective’s sake, I’m sure), but she is tormented by how influenced and influential the audience is in the sensationalized story. She sees how Adnan’s life has become just a story to trifle with.
The reliability of the narrator, Sarah Koenig herself
The most troubling issue I have with Sarah Koenig is her reliability as a narrator. For the longest time, she acted as if we were uncovering the facts at the same pace as her; however, there are blatant moments throughout the podcast where she deliberately withholds key information. The reason for doing so? So that she can build up suspense in the narrative and keep audience engagement.
No matter how hard we try, bias leaks into every single thing we do. And through audial media, the inflections are too difficult to contain; it’s too difficult to come off completely unbiased through speech. This can be in the form of the previously stated withholding of information—we don’t get to talk to the people she does in person; we don’t get to see the body language of the people that she interviews, which can become quite important in cases like this. It can also take the form of what she does choose to share in the podcast. Lately, her opinion on Adnan’s innocence has grown tumultuous and so have the segments of recordings that she has chosen to share—in one of the more recent episodes, she shows Adnan’s deliberate pauses and some segments where he can come off a bit hostile. But everyone has their off days; no one is expected to be polite and cheerful all the time, especially towards someone that is pestering you unrelentingly to remember something 15 years ago and expresses extreme disappointment and frustration when you fail… all this for something that could potentially be inconsequential.
His innocence is inconsequential
What gets me the most is that people are focusing on whether or not he’s innocent. There have been countless Reddit discussions—arguments, even—and IRL meetups where people gather to discuss whether these facts (hearsay) can prove his innocence or his guilt. Regardless of his innocence, Adnan should not be in jail on the single fact that there was not enough physical evidence in addition to such a large area of reasonable doubt.
Instead, what we should be focusing on is: how effective is our judicial system? If people like Adnan, and it’s really more a “when” than an “if” because this happens all the time, get convicted on such little physical evidence and such overwhelming reasonable doubt, then our judicial system is not doing its job correctly.
The ultimate goal of this podcast
Finally, my question is: what is the ultimate goal of this podcast? If she was interested in the case to this extent, why was public consummation a necessary part of the equation? Would it have been better if she had completed the series before airing it to avoid gray areas such as this?
However, not everything that comes from Serial is necessarily a bad thing. First of all, it does call attention to the flaws of our judicial system. Cases like Adnan Syed’s aren’t rare; in fact, there have been many innocent people who have been convicted for death row with just as weak of a case as his. Serial puts our criminal justice system under public review… for good reason.
And if things don’t turn out the way we all want it to, I hope that Sarah Koenig hones in on this lens instead of just leaving it the way it is.
For thoughts better expressed on the ethics of Serial, check out:
- Stephanie Schilt’s article on The Spook: Is Serial Podcast Problematic?
- Adrienne LaFrance’s article on The Atlantic: Is It Wrong to be Hooked on Serial?
For thoughts on the US criminal justice system, I wholly recommend:
- Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness