Here we are, less than a day away from the 12th and final episode of SERIAL, a new podcast that in less than four months has captured the attention of millions of listeners, and I still don’t know how it will end or how to feel. The way that this episodic investigation into the real-life murder of a Maryland high schooler in 1999 and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend has caught on suggests it isn’t just a success but a monumental shift that has already become the gold-standard of podcasts from here on out. The seat-of-your-pants reporting by journalist Sarah Koenig has been a brave example of what long form journalism can be in the podcast age, but it has also shed light on many uncomfortable realities.
We like to believe that if you are innocent, you can’t possibly be convicted of a crime. At this point in the story many still aren’t aware of whether Adnan Syed, the young man that has been in jail for the last 15 years, is innocent or guilty. But the evidence that Koenig reveals that put him away for life is thin to say the least. The fact that there is even a podcast about this murder and the trials surrounding it should tell you that there is still an intense and underlying mystery here. But Syed was put away just the same. And that’s part of the draw.
Today, we know that people have been exonerated of crimes they were convicted of. Sometimes they are on death-row and appeal after appeal eventually leads to the discovery of their innocence. But this doesn’t have to happen more than once to be shocking and disturbing. To think that it’s happened hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in various degrees should capture the attention of everyone because it proves that as intricate and precise as our justice system is, it still isn’t perfect.
Syed’s innocence or guilt is almost a side story in a way. SERIAL has laid bare the justice process and makes it incredibly clear that there are glaring faults. Humans make errors. Emotion and prejudice can often get involved. But is there a better way? I’m not even sure at this point. But another reason that I can’t stop thinking about the podcast is because this is insight into the process of a journalist’s investigation that typically results in a story. For the audience, we are rarely aware of all the missteps and red-herrings. The leads that turn up nothing aren’t talked about. We just see this neat little package, often with a conclusive end.
In SERIAL, that’s not the case. Week by week, we have been alongside Koenig as she investigates the story. When we started, she didn’t have a strong inclination as to where the story would end. This is a narrative. Koenig is crafting this story but she has been unafraid of giving us the entire
In fact, the investigation has been so thorough that we learn a lawyer that briefly defended Adnan was shocked to hear how much digging Koenig has managed. He remarks that as a lawyer, he rarely has time to do that kind of research even with assistants. And yet, as thorough as her reporting of her investigation is, with errors and flaws made plain, some listeners have been inspired to dig further and jump ahead.
I’ve hesitated to do this because I see SERIAL as this rare piece of journalism that is a double-edged sword. This is an investigation into the very real murder of a young girl and a man sits in jail proclaiming his innocence. Lives are on the line here. There’s power in this story.
But it’s also a podcast that is entertaining. This isn’t dull storytelling by any means. SERIAL has caught on precisely because the way that Koenig lays out the evidence has been engrossing. That is why I have kept away from outside sources of information on what is–at the end of the day– a very public trial.
My desire is to experience Koenig’s investigation and judge this as a piece of journalism. Additionally, as indecent as it may sound, I want to listen to this as a story. I wouldn’t pause a documentary or film in the middle to dig up evidence. In the news, we miss the middle part, the formulation. And that’s what SERIAL is all about. It’s about the discovery, the walk, and the journey of getting from point A to point C. And I want Koenig to be my guide.