So much was impressive about Serial that I’m reluctant to point out some of the intractable ethical problems on which the sensational podcast, which explored over 12 weeks the 1999 murder of a Baltimore teenager, was built. But since Serial’s spectacular success is bound to inspire imitators, and the people who do it next may not be as careful as Serial’s creator, Sarah Koenig, it’s vital to identify these pitfalls, which aren’t minor.
The series, which concluded in mid-December, is widely hailed as the most popular podcast in the admittedly brief history of the medium—some 850,000 downloads per episode—and has spawned virtual boroughs of fans and commentators.
But apart from a posting on the ThinkProgress.org website in November, I haven’t seen any serious meditations on its ethical shortcomings, most of them baked into the core conceit of the program: It aired as a journalistic work-in-progress, sharing its incomplete reporting as it went along.
Serial re-examined the case of 18-year-old high school senior Hae Min Lee, murdered one afternoon in January 1999. Her body was discovered in a park a month later. Police were led to her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, by a friend of his who told police he helped bury the girl. Syed, then 17, allegedly strangled her in a jealous rage and is serving a life sentence.
Koenig, an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter with strong journalistic chops, began looking into the case when she was preparing an item for This American Life, the quirky and compelling public radio series created by Ira Glass. With Glass’s support Koenig and her producers spent months on a minute investigation, interviewing dozens of witnesses, some never contacted for the trial.
That description doesn’t begin to convey how engaging Serial was for its listeners, myself included, and how masterfully Koenig both reconstructed the case and probed the limits of memory and evidence on which her reconstruction was built.
I have nothing but admiration for her craft, but as to whether Serial is a model of “incredibly hard, original journalism” (Philadelphia Inquirer) and a “daring, living piece of serious, journalistic work,” (NBC News), I have big doubts. Most derive from the fact that Serial began airing well before Koenig finished her investigation, and she shared her hunches, speculations, and suppositions as the series unspooled.
That may seem like a commendable reflection of reportorial humility and transparency, but when I first heard Koenig was going public with findings before she had reached any conclusions about what they meant, I was aghast.
First, doing that creates a huge potential for gratuitous defamation if it means sharing damaging conjectures based on suspicions that turned out to be ill-founded. The more the producers advanced hypotheticals about the truthfulness, Continue reading