With download of This American Life’s spinoff podcast “Serial” hitting 5 million downloads this week, an old murder case is being cast in a new light—at least to those uninvolved with the criminal justice system. Podcasts have never been a particularly effective source of journalism, and many have expressed surprise over the popularity of “Serial.” Some have speculated that the murder mystery draws people in the same way fictional television shows do — with endings that leave those listening yearning for more. Though Serial may be good news for the podcast industry and investigative journalism, it may be even better for the criminal justice system.
Serial follows the murder of Hae Min Lee, the timeline and relationships between those involved, and the legal proceedings against her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. But unlike many popular crime dramas, Hae Min Lee’s story is real. And while millions of listeners are enthralled by her story and the complicated legal details of Adnan Syed’s conviction, the reality remains that Serial follows what prosecutors, police, or defense attorneys would consider a completely ordinary, perfectly typical criminal case in the United States. Essentially, Serial presents both a disturbing picture of the criminal justice system and an opportunity for the public—those not affiliated with the legal system in a professional capacity—to learn about substantive and procedural obstacles that people face when entered into the criminal justice system.
Some have questioned whether this form of entertainment can adequately and appropriately address the tensions between Serial’s popularity and actual lives of those involved. When Rolling Stone asked producer Sarah Koenig about her goals for the podcast, Koenig responded: “The only thing I really, really worry about is: Am I being fair at every step of the way? Because I’m still reporting it as it’s unfolding, there is a different kind of pressure. If I learn something three weeks from now that really changes my view of things, I don’t want to have to worry that, ‘Oh, no, I got it wrong in episode two.’”
What result? The audience likely will be left without resolution on who murdered Hae Min Lee, because unlike television, this podcast chronicles a real story with a common ending: uncertainty, pain, and unjust results for all involved.