Serial: The case for and against

I started writing this post back in December but never got around to finishing or publishing it. I decided to do so because Syed's case is still in the news, and because some people are just discovering the podcast. And also because it could have a lasting influence on podcasting and possibly narrative nonfiction.

Serial's first season is over. Thank God, in some ways, because it would be cool to have something else to talk and read about, podcast-wise. And also because I think Sarah Koenig and her team have looked into every aspect of this case that they could, and not only looked into but mulled over.

And the reactions have been many. Here are mine, in two categories:

In favor:

  • I deeply admire the ambition and perseverance shown by the Serial team in reporting and telling this story -- and to This American Life for supporting such an effort. Several people put a year of their lives into this project. That doesn't happen so often in journalism these days.
  • I admire the skill and experience that they used in telling such a complicated story in such understandable terms, without skipping on nuance (as far as I could tell).
  • I envy their ability to include lots of ancillary material that comes up during an investigation and a trial but must be left out of a 15-inch newspaper story or even a 4-minute radio report (in radio, 4 minutes is really long). Having covered a few trials, that's always the stuff that stuck with me, and it was so frustrating to have to stick to a bare outline of what happened. Twelve episodes of half an hour or more gave them breathing room on this project, and they took advantage of that.
  • I came to the same conclusion as Koenig early on — like maybe after the fourth episode. Which is basically this: That Adnan Syed should not have been convicted of the crime because the circumstantial evidence, based largely on one person's changing story, was not sufficient to convict someone of first-degree murder. I am under no illusion that Syed is unusual in this regard. He may even be guilty, which I suppose should give us some comfort. But Koenig's largest service may be to make a lot of potential jurors in future cases a lot more skeptical about witness testimony or confusing technical evidence, like those cell phone records.
  • I appreciated Koenig's openness about the reporting process and her own thoughts about the story as she was reporting it. Sometimes, I think journalists get this attitude of authority and omniscience that is unjustified and, in some cases, dangerous. It's the kind of grandiosity that makes you stop listening to people. Koenig clearly listens to people, and questions her own positions and conclusions.


  • This is going to sound weird after my last point in favor of Serial and its approach, but I did get kind of sick of hearing about Koenig's feelings about the case. It's not about you! Perhaps the flip side to the grandiosity I mentioned above is a kind of narcissism.
  • I realize there was no way to anticipate the interest and popularity of the show, but I was a little annoyed that the team was so unprepared for social media interaction (the Reddit threads, etc.). That's our current media landscape and you are allegedly savvy media people.
  • I was uncomfortable with the whole thing being treated as a form of entertainment, even though I know that's how true crime is generally produced and consumed. These are, after all, real people not fictional characters. And I was impatient with the team's public discomfort with that very thing — when that's precisely how Ira Glass sold it on the Tonight Show, with comparisons to True Detective, etc.
  • I understand why they focused on this one case and I think that's an effective storytelling technique. But I wish they'd taken just a little bit of time to draw some larger conclusions. Like that witnesses can be coerced, that cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys are flawed humans who are often overwhelmed, that people can be convicted on purely circumstantial evidence. And that this has way more significance than this single case that millions of people are now interested in following.