The Ethical Issues of Serial Podcast as True Crime Entertainment

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The podcast “Serial” created and narrated by Sarah Koenig, was the fastest ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads and the biggest podcast in the world in 2015. The weekly podcast is Koenig’s investigation into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and whether the convicted murderer, Adnan Syed, was wrongly convicted. Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. Lee and Syed were both seniors at Woodlawn High School when Lee disappeared on January 13, 1999. One month later her body was found in a park, half-buried. There was a lack of physical evidence to convict Adnan, so prosecutors depended on key witness testimonies and confessions. Adnan was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. From the 1st episode we the listeners immediately learn that the show is about doubt. Sarah introduces herself as a journalist from the Baltimore Sun who has no history of murder investigation and that this case has been simply a hobby of hers for the past year, she states, “I’m not a detective or a private investigator. I’m not even a crime reporter”, diminishing all credibility. Koenig set out to find the truth and set what she thought an innocent man free with Serial, something that could have been a great and innovative journalistic endeavor, but ended up with another unsatisfying and unfortunate dead girl drama.

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A little back story on how this show came about was Koenig wrote an article in the Baltimore Sun about a lawyer. That lawyer happened to be the same one who represented Adnan is his case. A family friend of Adnan’s, named Rabia Chaudry, read the article and approached Sarah to look into Adnan’s case because she believed he was wrongfully convicted. Koenig did some research and talked to Rabia about Adnan and something did seem off. Adnan seemed to be a normal kid. He was a popular, charismatic student-athlete who was friendly with everyone. It didn’t seem possible for someone like this to commit murder. So that’s how this show came about, not to find out who killed Hae Min Lee, but to prove Adnan’s innocence. Doomed from the start. Koenig has and will deny this, but the podcast proves otherwise. Koenig presents testimonies and other suspects in a way to persuade the listener to sympathize with Adnan. Especially with the way she presents Jay, the main suspect who confessed to the police that he helped Adnan dig a hole to bury Hae in. Koenig depicts Jay as a troubled character who was Adnan’s drug dealer and used to a criminal lifestyle. What Koenig does with Jay is a major ethical flaw. Sarah Koenig is a white female who is inherently privileged and all the characters, in this case, are minorities from Baltimore, a city infamous for its criminal activity. This creates a cultural barrier between Koenig and this case. As I previously stated, Koenig’s initial motive was to prove Adnan’s innocence, so the way she does that is to frame Jay as the real suspect. Evidence of this is when Koenig is talking about Jay’s testimony, stating, “The cops had a struggle with Jay; I have a struggle with Jay”, Koenig didn’t think that Adnan fit the bill for murder but Jay did and Jay was her way of shifting the guilt away from Adnan. This is why the podcast and Koenig are guilty of unethical journalism. Koenig began with a bias that Adnan was innocent and she couldn’t separate herself and her bias from the case to get to the truth.

Serial’s episodes were released week by week at the same time Sarah Koenig was learning new information. This storytelling style opens a wide range of journalistic ethical dilemmas. In the early episodes, much of what Koenig says is mainly speculation as she is learning the case as we do. Koenig clarifies and distinguishes what is speculation and what is a fact, but that doesn’t erase the ethical flaw exposing listeners to speculation. Koenig’s unprovoked questions and speculations influence the listeners even if she prefaces them with the fact that she could be wrong. As the host of the show and sole reporter in the investigation, she has a certain power to sway opinions and I don’t think she understood this. In a murder investigation, the story and timeline should clear and factual, laying out the evidence and presenting what you have. Koenig’s way of storytelling is not meant to do this, but instead, gain the viewer's interest and sensationalize the case, ending every episode on a cliffhanger that was written by Koenig and her producers to bring everyone back next week. I don’t fault Koenig for sensationalizing the case or for her format for the podcast because at the end of the day you need listeners to keep coming back to continue the podcast. Sensationalism only becomes unethical when you manipulate the facts and timeline to create interest or persuade one’s opinion.

It is very apparent that entertainment comes first for the podcast and Sarah Koenig. The show is filled with open-ended questions and scripted to lead into the next episode. This is totally ok until it becomes manipulative. It’s hard to accuse Koenig of manipulation because of how she releases episodes in real-time with what she is learning. It could be a byproduct of the podcast format but because Koenig puts entertainment before facts, it makes me believe that she intentionally misdirects the listeners. Because of all the misdirection and the way that Koenig provides so much detail into every main character’s life it makes the podcast more of a genre piece like a mystery of thriller rather than an investigative piece and that is unethical journalism. The finale is rather anticlimactic because there is no end, no conclusion. There is no major revelation or breakthrough that Koenig has. Speaking to Rabia one year after she first approached by her with the case she states, “She had failed to find the smoking gun. She found nothing that either condemned Adnan for certain and nothing that exonerated him for certain” (Chaudry). She didn’t learn anything concrete that can shift the weight of guilt off Adnan onto another, so she didn’t. The podcast ends that same way it started, doubtful. Doubtful that Adnan did it but also doubtful that he didn’t because if he is innocent than he’s just unluckiest guy in the world.

Looking back on it, Serial is just as ethical as any other journalism today. Journalism has turned into another form of entertainment, like reality television, but real. Serial may be sensationalized and constructed to misdirect the listener, but I believe that Koenig started the podcast with the intention of freeing someone she truly thought was innocent. As the podcast progressed and she learned what she did, I think she reached a point where she realized that she couldn’t do what she set out to and that’s why the ending is so anticlimactic, because there was nowhere left to go. I believe it is easy to condemn Sarah Koenig for unethical journalism but don’t think that it was intentional on her part, only a byproduct of the podcast's format, “One story, told week by week”.

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