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Serial: a new kind of journalism

12.26. 2014 Posted By: Gordon Houser 732 Times read

Shortly before Thanksgiving, my daughter told me about Serial, a podcast exploring a nonfiction story over multiple episodes (thus the name).

It’s a spinoff of the radio program This American Life. First released last October, the episodes ran weekly for 12 weeks. The final episode was released on Dec. 18.

In early December, I went online and listened to the podcasts, and I was hooked. I understood why it ranked number one on iTunes for several weeks.

Sarah Koenig, who created and hosts the series, investigates the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore.

Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Musud Syed, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. After a six-week trial, Syed was found guilty on Feb. 25, 2000, and given a life sentence, despite pleading his innocence.

Koenig’s journalism is not especially new. She does what other journalists do in newspaper articles or TV “newsmagazines” that explore a topic in detail in order to get at the truth.

But what makes Koenig’s reporting in Serial unique, besides the format, is her transparency. As Joyce Barnathan notes in “Why Serial Is Important for Journalism” (Columbia Journalism Review), Koenig shares her thoughts and views as she researches the story. She talks about her anxieties, her soul searching, as she ponders whether or not Syed is guilty.

This openness, writes Barnathan, “adds tremendous credibility to our field.” We identify with Koenig because she’s expressing what we also feel.

The podcasts move us emotionally. At times we believe, or want to believe, that Syed is innocent. At other times we wonder if he’s playing us.

Koenig not only tells a gripping story, however. She raises interesting questions that connect to our lives and help us understand how complex situations are. For example, she asks people, “Do you remember the details of a day six weeks ago?”

Serial also teaches us about how journalists or lawyers or detectives investigate a murder. And we learn about the criminal justice system, how fickle it can seem. We learn how imprecise people’s memories are, how events get interpreted in multiple ways.

When we watch a fictional murder investigation on TV, it usually is tied up neatly in an hour. In real life, it doesn’t work that way.

Koenig works hard to find people more than a decade later who were involved in the case, people who knew Syed or Lee. She also interviews experts in various fields.

Serial is more than entertaining and educational. It has uncovered evidence that the prosecution and the defense in this case failed to produce. People connected to the case have contacted Koenig and provided their perspectives.

Before the final episode aired, some criticized it for being produced if it wasn’t going to reach a clear conclusion about Syed’s innocence or guilt. But this is not a Dickens novel with a clear, melodramatic ending.

As a result of the podcast, however, there is some movement toward possibly solving the murder.

The UVA Innocence Project is poised to ask a court to test an old physical evidence recovery kit that was used on Lee’s body to test for possible sexual assault in 1999 but was never tested for DNA. This could provide evidence showing Syed’s guilt or innocence, but the courts need to allow it.

Like life, the story is ongoing. Meanwhile, journalists can draw lessons from Serial about reporting with transparency.

Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.

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