What made “Serial” work

ALERT WARNING ALERT: Spoilers from the last episode of “Serial” below. STOP NOW if you don’t want to know how it ends.



Here’s my Journalism 101 question about “Serial“: If Sarah Koenig had done the exact same reporting without anyone seeing it, and she took what she found to NPR — or most any other publication — would they have published the story?

Probably not.

She didn’t find enough doubt to spring Adnan Syed. She didn’t find enough evidence against the mysterious Jay, or anyone else, to reopen the case of the murder of Hae Min Lee. She said what she believes — “most of the time, I think he didn’t do it” — but in the end, she had to shrug her shoulders.

At most publications, including the ones I’ve worked for, I think most people would’ve stuck her notes in a drawer and moved on.

“Serial” did it differently. I hope all of us in journalism are paying attention.

Historically, journalists have hidden our stories from the public before they’re ready. There are some good reasons for this:

1) You might decide not to do the story (see above).

2) You don’t want the subjects of the story to reshape it before it gets out.

3) You don’t want to get scooped by the competition.

The huge, brave risk “Serial” took is that it chose not to care about any of those things. Koenig and her colleagues started posting episodes without knowing where the story would lead, much less how it would end. The audience got to see all those frustrations and dead ends play out — and it turns out the very things we hide are what people are drawn to. Listeners built blogs and flooded Reddit with speculation as it went along. There was a podcast about the podcast. Some of those fans are probably disappointed today that there wasn’t a big reveal of the killer. A little part of me felt that way, too. But knowing they started the story on a tightrope made it a whole different experience. Even though the pieces were taped, it felt like a live show where anything could happen. In the finale, Koenig said she was getting new information right up until the moment she taped. I was half-expecting her to stop her own show halfway through with breaking news on the case.

These loose-ended stories happen all the time — it’s just that the outside world rarely sees them. Every reporter has stories where you can’t get the key people to talk, you can’t find some important document, you can’t figure out how to make it hang together. I once spent months researching a book idea that I loved, but there was one crucial fact that I came to decide I’d never be able to know. So I put the whole thing away.

But what makes a story a story is not just reaching the goal but overcoming the obstacles in the way. In one sense, every story is a detective story. The genius of “Serial” is how it let the audience in on the detective work of journalism. In that way it reminds me of my favorite story of all time, J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ.”

Of course, you have to understand that most detective stories are about the detective. The main character in “Serial” isn’t Adnan Syed. It’s Sarah Koenig. That’s a weird spot for most journalists. There’s no way to take yourself completely out of the story — every choice you make as a journalist is filtered through the way you see the world. Still, in general, we want the story to be about the people we’re writing about.

But I hope “Serial” widens the range of how traditional journalists think about how to do stories. Sometimes it’ll make sense to let readers in on the story early. Sometimes it’ll make sense to be more transparent about how you know what you know (and why you don’t know what you don’t know). Sometimes it’ll make sense to put the reporter at the center of the story, as a narrator trying to solve a mystery. Sometimes a few smart people in a newsroom will take that pile of notes that they can’t quite make whole, even though the story keeps them awake at night, and they’ll say: Let’s put it out there and see what happens.

“Serial” was solid journalism, it told a compelling story that got millions of us hooked, and it became the most popular podcast of all time. Seems like a good chance to take again.












32 thoughts on “What made “Serial” work

  1. Today i spent 300 $ for platinium roulette system , i hope that i will
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  2. This was the first podcast that I’ve been captivated by. It’s both about the journalist and questioning if the “system” works or doesn’t. Its hard to say if there has been improvement in the past 15 years especially considering the recent issues with the NYPD. Loved season 1 of the podcast — I am ready for more!

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  4. Reblogged this on OneChicklette and commented:
    Interesting take on the unique approach of Serial.

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  6. “Every choice you make as a journalist is filtered through the way you see the world.” I love that. This post was great to read as a journalism student. I too enjoyed the Serial podcast, despite its kind of lack of actual closure. Thanks for posting!

  7. Already miss Serial! Great post.

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  9. Good point well made. Honestly I kind of got lost in all the details of the investigation about the fourth episode in, but I still kept listening because the whole tangled mess of it was more intriguing than the facts themselves, the process rather than the desired product (he did/didn’t do it). On unrelated note, your how/know/know/why/don’tknow/don’tknow sentence made me thing of Rumsfeld’s “unknown known” quote for some reason. Anyway, glad to have your perspective on this, that sometimes not reaching the end can be just as fascinating as reaching it.

  10. Great thoughts on journalism. Thanks!

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  12. Your post makes me look slightly more favorably at the podcast, but I’m still troubled by the series, especially when it comes to your second point:
    “You don’t want the subjects of the story to reshape it before it gets out,” coupled with Koenig’s own status as a subject. If Koenig is the main character, then didn’t she ultimately have nearly exclusive control about how she was going to shape and present the story? And didn’t Sayad and the story’s very proponents–all friend/relatives of Sayad’s–have close to a year to shape how he was going to present his side of the story? And wasn’t the “breaking news” all generated by Koenig, and part of the shaping she did–for example, is it really, journalistically speaking, big “breaking news” that someone’s filing a post-conviction motion (particularly where I don’t remember being given any objective information about what standard that motion will be judged by at this stage)?
    Yes, evidently one ex-detective told Koenig that this particular case was an atypical mess; I don’t see that (and I’ve been doing homicide cases since 1985). I see far less of a mess than Koenig suggests, and I’m very troubled by the journalist-as-untrained detective concept and by some of the conclusions she draws: for example, in the final episode she seems to argue that a trial witness’s credibility is somehow (retroactively) undermined by the absence of testimony the journalist derived years later from a third party account that the witness had (shortly after the crime) felt “threatened” by third parties possibly assocuated with Sayad and parked across the street from the witness in a usually-empty lot. If she thinks the absence of this other party’s later account from the witness’s trial testimony undercuts the witness’s credibility at trial (another enormous issue: Koenig’s implication that based on her “investigation,” it was the jurors’ “job” to acquit–when only the jurors, not Koenig, ever had a chance to do what jurors take their oaths to do: evaluate only admissible evidence and assess all witnesses’ crediblity under oath and subject to cross-examination); she’s making a specious assumption. Witnesses have to give admissible testimony, and even relevant non-hearsay testimony can be excluded within a judge’s discretion if its prejudicial value outweighs its probative value. On what basis would that “fear” testimony have been even arguably admissible at trial, as Koenig herself characterizes the account? If this third-party account even jumped the hearsay barriers and was offered at trial, it’s not the prosecutor but Sayad’s own lawyer who likely would have been jumping up and down at the bench (or before trial, when sorting through motions to preclude certain kinds of testimony) objecting to a key government witness’s testimony that he was afraid of the defendant and thought he might have fearsome cohorts.
    And then there’s the logical loop-de-loop Koenig throws out at the end: she’s inclined to credit Sayad because, she muses, why would he agree to be involved with her story if he was guilty of the crime he was convicted of committing. Well, why not? What in the world did Sayad have to lose: is Koenig suggesting there would have been some down-side for Sayad if after her journalistic ramblings she opines of was guilty of what he’s been convicted of and is serving life for? Wouldn’t that be a big “so what?” for him, in the position he’s in. And look at the up side for being part of the story–he shapes it with his input, gets national attention, free lawyering and post-conviction motions . . . and maybe, just maybe, a whole lot of credulous supporters.

    • I’ve only heard one interview of Koenig and parts of Serial so I’m not at all informed of the story. I enjoyed reading your post and I only have one comment: the jury members should be the ones to decide what material is relevant and what isn’t when they make a decision that effects someone’s life. I’ve been on a jury and I think it’s miscarriage of justice that information is selected to present to the jury.

      • Karyn,
        I am thankful to everyone who serves as a juror–maybe the ultimate thankless job, and we ask a great deal of them. I think it’s important for Koenig to understand (and I’m not saying she does or doesn’t, but she seemed to me at times to suggest that the absence of certain testimony from trial should be interpreted in a way I don’t think makes evidentiary sense) the concept of legal relevance. We trust all factfinders to apply the law to the evidence which is competent to be before them. I’m sure you were instructed that you weren’t to hold it against a party to the case if his/her lawyer made an objection to offered evidence. I can only imagine how it looks to jurors to have the lawyers up at the bench making animated arguments about arcane legal points and not explaining any of it to the jury.
        Objections come from the party’s legal representatives, and the judge rules on them, because the evidence about to be offered may not be admissible: the trial judge might, for example, sustain an objection because the evidence being offered is more prejudicial to a criminal defendant than it is probative/relevant to the issues at hand; it might be inadmissible because it violates a rule of privilege (e.g., attorney-client privilege) or a constitutional rule (e.g., a defendant’s privilege against self-incrimination, or having post-arrest silence used against him); it might be inadmissible because it was obtained in violation of a defendant’s rights against unreasonable search and seizure; it might be inadmissible because it violates the hearsay rule, which boils down to requiring that a defendant have a right to cross-examine the source of information that’s being used to prove the truth of facts being introduced against him/her. The reasons go on and on, but evidence isn’t excluded because it would hurt/prejudice one party or another to a case; it’s excluded because it’s not something that a jury should be permitted to use because it’s irrelevant and/or untrustworthy information, or information derived from a violation of someone’s rights or privileges. We can’t throw everything, relevant and competent or not, in front of the factfinders because it would hopelessly confuse their task, and would put before them information even when it’s irrelevant or overly prejudicial to a defendant, and even where it was obtained by unlawful means. It’s far from a perfect system, but its aim is to have a trial be decided on the best and most reliable evidence.

  13. Thanks for sharing

  14. I do not agree when you say the story is about Sara Koenig! This podcast is about the relation between adnan and Sara. But also about the fact wether we should believe adnan or just believe the judges. This is also a call for others who are maybe in jail but didn’t do anything but also about a lot off otherdifferent things. This story has maybe the intention of solving the mystery but in fact it wants to point out a lot off different things that are just not right in the united states. So please don’t judges this podcast for what its not but for what it is. We maybe not satisfied that we can’t blame someone for doing it, but maybe that’s a good thing

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