Serial: Real Raw Journalism Feels Like a Masterful Con


Serial is a new crime reporting podcast from the creators of This American Life and a production of WBEZ Chicago. The first season aired 12 episodes from October through December 2014. Months later it is still #3 on the iTunes top podcast chart.

“Each season, we’ll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us,” the website states. “And we won’t know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we bring you the next chapter in the story.”

Season One is the story of Adnan Syed, a Muslim 17-year-old who was convicted for the murder of his Korean ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore in 1999. Lee never returned home from school one day and was found in a shallow grave at a local park. After a spotty mistrial and second trial, Syed was sentenced to life although he pleaded, and continues to plead, not guilty.

Courtesy of
Adnan Syed, left, and Hae Min Lee, right. Courtesy of

The podcast host, Sarah Koenig, reports and investigates the case for over a year searching for the truth about what happened to Lee on that day and how Syed’s lawyers and the jury contribute to his unfair and incomplete case. She speaks to Syed frequently over the phone and contacts many people with knowledge of the case and its characters. Koenig is back and forth herself on whether Syed is guilty or not because the evidence she accumulates creates more and more questions.

Serial is special because it makes you feel like you’re listening to a murder mystery audiobook. The creators made many intentional choices in the first season to execute the show this way. The music of the podcast is gripping and unsettling, just as the story itself is. The theme song, it’s opening and closing, serves as a dragged, creeping transition to the next episode.

The plot line is confusing because of all the lies and discrepancies between the characters. Koenig lets the characters tell their own sides of the story, their own versions of the truth. The sound bites express the speakers personality and emotions regarding the case. When Koenig speaks she is clear and explains the contradictions and holes in a way that doesn’t lose the listener. When something really major is about to develop, she’s not afraid to say, “you better listen to this part, it’s important.” Each episode is paced appropriately and the episodes don’t feel long. You’re left ready for the next.

I refused to write about Serial until I finished Season One in its entirety. If you haven’t listened to it and plan to, please stop reading here. SPOILER ALERT BELOW.

The podcast’s style overall is admirable because it holds the listener, but it’s also a fault because we forget the reality of Koenig’s reporting. Koenig is updating us week by week on how her reporting is going, what new information she is getting from sources and where the new info fits, or doesn’t fit, into Syed’s court case. She doesn’t know what she is going to find. Her reporting is so transparent that the listener forgets that this story is in the process, rather than a script with a satiating finale.

Serial is a look into what being an investigative reporter is like. Koenig’s journey into Syed’s case is a journey with her millions of listeners as well. The show is so well produced that we feel like its a movie on ID Discovery that has some grand ending where the real bad guy falls. The truth is that it isn’t. When there wasn’t a clear ending I was disappointed, but it taught me that real journalism and reporting doesn’t always end nicely.

Koenig’s reporting is a great example of how journalism can change lives. Because of how clearly and cohesively she was able to separate the facts, the speculation and the gossip, Syed was granted an appeal for this June. Syed has an opportunity for a panel of judges to review his case and decide if he had a fair trial or not. Journalists report and write to impact the world positively in some way. Serial exposed Syed’s case and may give him a second chance.


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