It's not the popular podcast that’s morally and ethically questionable. It's our entire system of justice.
What were you doing six weeks ago? Tell me about your movements on Tuesday, September 30, 2014. You can check your datebook, if you have one, but no looking at your cell phone’s call log, text messages, or social media posts for a reminder. In February of 1999, those records didn’t exist or were hard to come by—and that’s when a bunch of teenagers in Baltimore were asked to remember what they were doing on January 13, the day 18-year-old athlete and honor student Hae Min Lee went missing.
It was nearly a month before Hae’s body was found, and another few days before an anonymous caller told police to investigate her ex-boyfriend, 17-year-old athlete and honor student, Adnan Syed. Syed wasn’t arrested until February 28, following police questioning of witnesses who claimed he had planned the murder, told someone he committed it, and asked for help burying the body.
If he was guilty, it’s safe to assume Syed had clear memories of strangling his ex with his bare hands, moving her body to the trunk of her car, and enlisting the help of a low-level drug dealer named Jay to dig a shallow grave in a city park. But if he was innocent—and for the last 15 years, Adnan Syed has maintained that he is—January 13, 1999 was just a normal day, not the kind where you’d remember a lot of specifics. His inability to provide a confident, solid alibi was undoubtedly a factor in the prosecution’s successful case against him, the one that sent him to prison for life.
I can’t tell you for sure what I was doing last Tuesday, let alone six Tuesdays ago. Working at home for most of the day, probably, but since that’s what I do most days, I have no way of separating that day’s memories from any other. If I were arrested today for a murder committed on September 30, I would have very little to contribute to my own defense beyond “I didn’t do it.”
Sarah Koenig makes this point in the premiere episode of her new podcast, “Serial,” and it’s the first of many moments where she highlights a truth about human behavior that can easily be obscured by the justice system’s demand for concrete answers and the public’s desire for a tidy story. As she explores whether Adnan Syed is a cold-blooded killer or the victim of a shoddy investigation and lackluster—possibly even corrupt—defense, she continually returns to potentially damning ambiguities: the vagaries of memory, the white lies adolescents tell exceedingly strict parents, the hyperbole of a teen girl’s diary, the imprecision of cell phone tower data. Seven episodes in, with Koenig stating in interviews that she’s not working toward a predetermined conclusion, it’s beginning to feel a lot like there won’t be one.
And that’s exactly what makes “Serial” an important piece of journalism.
Backlash is the inevitable result of anything becoming as unexpectedly, overwhelmingly popular as “Serial” has, and as of last week, The Atlantic was one of several publications questioning the ethics of poring over real people’s lives—and a real young woman’s death—as if they’re nothing but clues in an especially compelling mystery story. What are we doing, fixating on murder as entertainment like that? What does it mean to be so invested in the fate of a convicted killer, just because he has loyal friends, a gentle demeanor and “eyes like a dairy cow,” according to Koenig? How would Hae Min Lee’s family feel, if they knew? Do they know? How could they not?
Setting aside the long history of true crime reportage, I would argue that asking ourselves such questions is part of the point of “Serial,” which is less an exploration of this one crime than a deep dive into human nature, deception, and self-justification.
So far, my personal impression is that Syed shouldn’t have been convicted on the evidence presented, but I’m not convinced he didn’t commit the murder. A quick-and-dirty poll of listeners obsessed enough to hang out in the “Serial” subreddit, rehashing what Koenig’s let us hear so far and sleuthing for “spoilers” on a 15-year-old case, revealed that after episode 7, most of us are coming down somewhere in the middle. We began listening with the expectation that “Serial’s” first season would tell the story of an innocent man, wrongfully convicted—and, well, it still might. But mostly, it’s about how investigators and prosecutors use scant and often conflicting facts to construct a story about how a crime could have been committed, and we just have to hope they usually get it right.
Whether Syed is guilty or not, we are all implicated in the system that robbed him of his adult life on the say-so of a two-bit weed dealer whose story kept changing. We’re implicated in a “War on Drugs” that’s given police so much leverage over two-bit weed dealers, they might just convince one to say nearly anything. We’re implicated in the prosecution’s decision to beef up its case with anti-Muslim stereotypes, and in the jury’s impossibly quick verdict of “guilty” after hearing them. Koenig’s storytelling may be entertaining, but it is not superficial, or in any way feel-good.
When I think about the ethics of true crime reporting, my mind immediately goes to a book I ran across during research on false accusations for a book on rape culture. Lisa Manshel’s Nap Time: The True Story of Sexual Abuse at a Suburban Day Care Center recounts the horrifying details of the State of New Jersey’s case against Margaret Kelly Michaels, a former preschool teacher convicted in 1987 on 115 charges related to the molestation of 33 children in her care. The only problem is, none of it ever happened; Michaels was swept up in a wave of panic over child sexual abuse that went bonkers in the mid-1980s, and her conviction was overturned on appeal, after she’d spent five years in prison.
I couldn’t resist ordering a used paperback of Nap Time to get a sense of what people were thinking in the thick of that panic—I was just a kid at the time—and it’s as chilling to read now as it surely was then, for entirely different reasons. Since Manshel operates on the premise that Michaels is guilty, the young woman’s protestations of innocence are spun as sinister lies, and the prosecution’s indifference to them as stoic professionalism.
After an investigator for the prosecution interviews Michaels, we’re told he determined she “was one of three things: either the greatest liar he’d ever met, the craziest loon, or just plain not guilty.” Ultimately, as the amount of circumstantial evidence grew—mostly in the form of testimony by heavily coached children and “experts” in sexual abuse whose theories would later be soundly debunked—”not guilty” ceased to be an option, so everyone with the power to save Kelly Michaels settled on some combination of “liar” and “crazy loon.” As did Manshel, in her recounting of the investigation and trial.
Was it unethical for her to write a book—a purposely entertaining book, full of prurient detail, no less—based on the premise that the justice system worked properly and sent the right person to prison for horrible crimes? I’d argue it wasn’t, even knowing that history has shown Nap Time to be nothing but the cautionary chronicle of a moral panic that devastated numerous lives. Unless you believe the true crime genre is fundamentally irresponsible, Manshel did nothing wrong. She just was wrong, along with multiple parents, investigators, experts, lawyers and jurors.
The core of “Serial” is not necessarily an exploration of whether something like that happened in the case of Adnan Syed, but whether it could have. Increasingly, the answer seems to be that yes, a gross miscarriage of justice could have sent Syed (and theoretically, untold others) to prison for the rest of his life, but there is simply no way to be 100 percent sure. He might have been wrongfully convicted, but that’s different from saying the wrong man was convicted. And no matter how hard you search, sometimes there’s just no piece of evidence that definitively proves what happened. Sometimes, everyone with the power to remove a citizen’s freedom—even to end his life, in some states—is simply making their best guess.
Reporting that illuminates that reality from several different angles, over a long stretch of time, is unsettling. Finding yourself looking forward to hearing more about a real murdered teenager and a real prisoner who might be innocent, even more so. But just as circumstantial evidence doesn’t mean someone committed a crime, and a botched investigation doesn’t mean he didn’t, feeling unsettled doesn’t mean you’re experiencing something that is itself morally questionable. It might, in fact, mean that your concept of “right” and “wrong” is being challenged, or your complicity in a broken system is being brought to your attention in a way you can’t ignore. And I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more important function of responsible journalism.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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