November 19, 2014

serial-adnanNot many journalists would dare compare a convict’s big brown eyes to those of a dairy cow: “Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.”

Yet that’s exactly what Sarah Koenig, the reporter for the public radio podcast “Serial,” did while talking about one of her series’ main subjects. Her style mixes traditional reporting with think-out-loud observations and thoughts, which is why it’s both compelling and uncomfortable for journalists to listen to.

“We try to minimize the reporter’s voice,” said Justin George, a crime reporter from the Baltimore Sun. “She’s literally telling readers how she feels. Not what she’s seeing but how she feels, and that’s probably why she is grabbing readers.”

“Serial” is about the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore County, Maryland, and the arrest and conviction of her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was sentenced to life in prison. Koenig diligently re-investigates the case and tells you what she is thinking as she is doing it – much like a fictional television detective. But, of course, she’s talking about real people.

Her style breaks the traditional journalism practice of keeping the reporter out of the story: Unless you are a columnist or an editorial writer, your opinions and thoughts are generally considered irrelevant. The reporter is there to find experts, witnesses, visuals and data to tell the story. “Serial” makes one wonder if neutrality is a convention that should be re-evaluated, or if it’s pushing an important boundary in journalism that ought to be left alone.

“Serial” will likely inspire stories done in a similar format given the show’s popularity: It is the top podcast on iTunes. Each episode is downloaded an average of 1.2 million times. There’s a “subreddit” group of more than 12,000 members who pore over the details of every episode trying to solve the case. There’s a Slate podcast just to discuss what happened in the “Serial” podcast. “Serial,” a WBEZ Chicago production, is from the creators of This American Life.

George looked into the Syed case for the Sun and did some work on “Serial.” He was featured in Episode 3 of the program. He said it was very strange to do the radio show.

“I felt really self-conscious,” he said.  “I didn’t want to say what I thought all the time because I didn’t want it to endanger my objectivity.”

George said he has opinions on how the case might end, but “I did not want to come out on the radio and say that. I was scared. We don’t pull back the curtains like that.”

Koenig, who is a former crime reporter, has no problem speculating on Syed’s innocence or guilt on the show. Newspaper reporters have conversations with their editors that are similar to Koenig’s dialogue with herself, but they never end up in the story, George said.

“We try to be as efficient and clear as possible and [what “Serial” is doing] essentially goes against what we do…Does the reader really want to hear what we are thinking?” he said.

There is a place for journalists to express their judgments – when they’re based on thoughtful analysis, said Ted Glasser, a journalism professor at Stanford University. But readers benefit more from such analysis than they do from simply knowing whether a journalist likes something or not.

Applied to “Serial,” Koenig’s analysis of the evidence is probably more helpful than her opinions of Syed’s innocence or guilt.

Either way, Koenig is put in an odd position, according to John Watson, associate professor of journalism at American University. The show “posits the journalist as the investigator of the crime even though in reality journalists function properly only as the investigator of the (police) investigator handling the case,” he wrote in an email.

Still, Koenig’s commentary allows listeners to get to know her, and that probably draws them back to the show every week as much as the suspense, George said.

“Serial” also provides a public service by shedding light on the justice system – how appeals work and evidence is weighed, how mistakes are made, how juries can be influenced – in a way that’s engaging to listeners, he said. Koenig’s openness about her feelings creates an air of transparency, making listeners trust that those feelings don’t affect how she is obtaining or examining the information.

Listeners can also tell that she’s working hard to get at the truth, said George. “There are places I would have stopped reporting and she keeps going,” he added.

That brings up another interesting dimension: Whether “Serial” has devoted more time and resources to the Hae Min Lee story than the Sun could ever hope to.

Koenig has spent every working day for the past year on this story, according to the podcast. (Staffers at “Serial” said they did not have time to answer questions for Poynter.) But in episode one she says, “if you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is this is the one that came to me. It wasn’t halfway across the world or even next door. It came right to my lap. And if I could help get to the bottom of it, shouldn’t I try?”

Baltimore has more than 200 murders a year, George said, and he and his colleagues have to make hard decisions about why one case gets more coverage than another.

The only story George wrote about the Syed case for The Baltimore Sun focused on the family’s suffering, and touched on difficulties endured by families of those behind bars. That’s a broad theme that many families in the Baltimore region – and beyond – can relate to.

This story was updated with comments from an American University professor.

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Seth Liss is the editor of He was previously the online managing editor of WAMU, a public radio station in Washington, D.C. Before that,…
Seth Liss

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