The day after the latest episode of our new favorite show released, my friend and I went back and forth on theories of how the series would turn out. The new episode revealed more details about one of the show’s more complicated characters, changing what we thought about the ever-twisting story’s eventual outcome.
But we weren’t watching AMC’s latest hit or a new HBO crime drama. We were listening to a podcast.
Serial, which is now nine episodes in, is the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads as it sits atop of iTunes’ podcast charts. It’s spawned parodies, online theories and even a Miley Cyrus mash-up on its way to becoming a full-fledged pop cultural force.
But as fun as it is to listen to, should we feel conflicted about enjoying it so much?
Each episode of Serial, which is produced by members of the This American Life team, tells another chapter in reporter Sarah Koening’s investigation into a 15-year-old murder case. In 2000, Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee while they were both students at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore.
Through recorded phone conversations with Syed (who is currently serving a life sentence), former classmates and records from the original police investigation and trial, Koening unveils more about the case against Syed each week. With each new download, audiences learn about how police handled (or mishandled?) the investigation. They hear about the double-speak of the state’s primary witness. They get a clearer picture of Syed and Lee’s relationship. And they get more context for the social, religious (Syed is Muslim) and racial undertones of the story.
Early on, Koening even compares the unfolding tale to a Shakespeare play.
In terms of a narrative, it’s a fair comparison. Koening is a talented writer and storyteller. But, is Shakespearian an adjective that we should be using to describe journalism?
Unlike some works of true-crime literature, which play up plot elements to build the story’s tension, Serial isn’t just simply recounting the events surrounding a murder. From the beginning, it’s played up the angle that this is an investigation that may, in fact, uncover evidence that Syed is not the killer. In episode seven, they even accepted the help of the Innocence Project at UVA, a group that attempts to uncover evidence that inmates had been wrongly convicted. The podcast, and Koening’s investigation, is becoming an increasingly complicated mix of journalistic investigation, advocacy and entertainment.
Journalism, in its purest form, is primarily supposed to be objective, without an agenda. And, in its classic delivery, it is presented in a way that isn’t overly concerned with entertainment value, much less drama.
Students of old school, hard news, print journalism learn a writing method known as the “inverted pyramid,” in which the raw facts are presented up front, and are given the most real estate, with all the other information and background details trailing off behind them.
But Serial is different. We don’t learn significant pieces of the story until certain thematic episodes (“Route Talk,” “The Alibi,” “The Deal with Jay”) focus on them. Obviously, Serial isn’t a traditional newspaper article, and the form (serialized, long-form audio) dictates some new rules, but it does raise the question: Is Serial more concerned with journalism and advocacy or entertainment value?
Part of the unique problem Serial has created is that we are all enjoying the drama of a real life murder case like it’s another season of Breaking Bad.
But watercooler conversations about the weirdness of someone like Rust Cohle become different when we are talking about characters in Serial, like the mutual friend-turned-star-state witness, Jay. That’s because we’re talking about an actual person now.
Sure, as a porn-shop employee with Rodman-like fashion sense from a rough background (as he’s described on the show), Jay makes for an interesting character, but he’s also a real guy. Not only that, he’s a real guy who had his life disrupted when two reporters recently knocked on his door unannounced as part of their investigation into a 15-year-old case they’re looking into for a podcast series.
There’s nothing wrong with entertaining journalism. But what happens when the qualities that make us love a piece of journalism become indistinguishable from those that we like in great pieces of entertainment?
This week on Reddit, a person claiming to be the brother of victim Hae Min Lee gave his own thoughts on the podcast. (His identity hasn’t been confirmed, the post was removed because he screen-shotted what appeared to be correspondence with Koening that included her personal information.) He wrote:
TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heart att[a]ck when she got the new[s] that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through … I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5 [million] listeners.
Even though he praised Koening as “an awesome narrator/ writer/ investigator,” the fact that his own sister’s brutal murder has become pop-culture fodder is a difficult reality.
And, as listeners, it should be for us, too.
Journalism, legal advocacy and storytelling are all important. And, it’s still unclear where the first season of Serial, which still has several episodes left, will land in its takeaway from its investigation. But for listeners, consuming the content isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but it is something that should make us ask our own questions: Are we listening because we’re genuinely concerned about the state of the legal process that is explored in this case? Or are we hooked just because it’s an entertaining story?
In the new golden age of serialized crime-drama—led by TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and True Crime—the question isn’t whether we can still see the line between reality and fiction. It’s whether we even care when it starts to get blurry.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.