The journalist and the murderer
‘Serial’ comes to a dubious end

[Note: major spoilers for Serial follow. If you haven’t listened to the series, you can find all the episodes here.]

Serial, the blockbuster true-crime podcast produced by This American Life, with its audience of more than five million listeners weekly, has come to an end after 12 episodes. The set-up of the series – that a man currently in prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend when both were teenagers in the late 1990s might have been wrongly convicted – was a premise ultimately not delivered on. The final episode was dedicated to an evaluation of the evidence as it had been laid out over the series, taking into account everything the producers had ferreted out over the months, only to conclude that there was no way to definitively prove if the man was rightfully convicted or not.

“We didn’t have the facts 15 years ago and we still don’t have them now,” were the last words of the series. It was a half step above “It was all a dream”.

This American Life has often been accused of producing the kind of just-so, pat narratives that prime listeners to expect neatly packaged summations  (preferably containing an easily repeatable lesson of some kind) of very complex ideas. That in the end Serial was unable to deliver this kind of ending is an irony not lost. Sometimes – often! – life’s messy facts refuse to be shaped into comforting, consoling answers.

Investigated and presented by veteran Baltimore Sun reporter and TAL producer Sarah Koenig, Serial went from the purview of radio nerds to global phenomenon with lightning speed, spawning distasteful merchandise, irritating memes and inspiring the worst idea maybe ever conceived, in the form of a crowd-funded app for vigilante armchair detectives. There were podcasts about the podcast, incisive analyses of its many ethical problems and countless online message boards and support groups where would-be sleuths gathered to obsess over every detail of the crime and the episodes themselves. (The show helpfully posted transcripts, maps, images and other documents to its website at the conclusion of each instalment.)

What explains Serial’s staggering popularity? The sense of experiencing the investigation in real time galvanised its listenership; perhaps there was also something appealing in its slow and ye olde week-by-week format. Listeners felt part of a larger “cultural moment” There is no doubt the podcast succeeded in its quest to be entertaining. Whether it succeeded as a piece of accurately and carefully reported journalism is far less clear.

Serial employed all the manipulative tricks of genre fiction (ominous sound effects and music cues) to key listeners in to how they should be feeling at certain points in the narrative; its blurring of reportage and entertainment more closely resembled pulpy true-crime shows like The First 48 than it did high-minded public radio broadcasting. The cliffhanger ending was something this show pulled off with aplomb with every episode. Serial’s producers were masters of creating suspense, to the point where a common refrain among listeners writing on the internet was how long it took to realise they were hearing to a true story and not a work of fiction.

Serial was fundamentally about the enterprise of journalism itself. Its appeal was more than just as porn for newshounds, who could gawk at a fellow journalist’s processes laid so bare. Koenig’s decision to leave so much of the messiness of the behind-the-scenes work of putting a story together in the actual broadcast demystified the reporting process and complicated the view of the journalist as the arbiter of truth. It was also a precisely calibrated way of gaining the trust and sympathies of the audience; one of Serial’s most appealing aspects to its fans was the perception that the producers were only a few steps ahead of them. It was an invitation to participate in the investigation as it happened. Yet the show’s “Aw shucks, we’re just figuring this all out too!” tone smacked of disingenuousness, all the more so in light of Serial’s non-ending.

Reporting a story for broadcast in real time stoked listeners’ breathless analysis in the wake of each episode. It is difficult to see this in any way other than as a cynically calculated hook. “We’re only a few steps ahead of you” not only absolved Serial of any responsibility it had to provide concrete answers, it also tacitly encouraged the fevered speculation to which the producers claim they paid no attention. It is this decision that leaves the series most open to a criticism of its ethics.

All journalism is an assemblage of facts, presented in an order the journalist chooses for maximum effect. The withholding of key details to be later revealed for dramatic impact, the recreation of scenes and dialogue not witnessed first hand, misdirection and divergent explorations of tangential themes and moral quandaries; these story elements appearing in nonfiction go back to the New Journalism movement, when Gay Talese appropriated fictional storytelling techniques for his reporting, then most famously fully realised by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood (the facts of which have in the decades since been called into question.) The use of these tactics has always ultimately been in the service of uncovering truths; truths that also needed to be entertaining to secure an audience, producing those exceptional, unforgettable instances of a gross injustice then overturned, or a murder case cracked by a reporter.

True crime as a genre has long been irresistible to writers. Hubris, envy, narcissism and terror – the big themes of human drama – all swirl at its edges. The stakes are literally life and death. The scenes, as they exist, are already set. The characters already real, the cataclysm has already taken place; the journalist comes in most often after the fact, to recreate as vividly as possible the sequence of events from what is on the record. They turn over stones, exposing the failings of our justice systems; ruminate on the socioeconomic correlates of crime; dragging prejudice, corruption, incompetence, negligence and greed into the light of public scrutiny.

Into that light they also often drag victims of crime.

Murder is as old as we are, an ancient, transgression that violently disrupts the social order. Our fascination with it is endless – the mystery, the detective story archetypal. We can’t abide the disquiet, the dissonance murder provokes in us; we crave answers and swift justice – Joan Didion’s “sermon in the suicide”. We use narrative to try to cope with the anxiety of the unpredictable, the ultimately, frighteningly unknowable.

It’s a fascination that can turn ghoulish. In reporting on the lives of others, journalists – especially hardened news journalists – run the risk of dehumanising their subjects. They can stop seeing people and start seeing only characters in “a yarn”. In the case of Serial it felt quite quickly as though the people whose lives had been upended by the podcast were players on a stage, not real, feeling humans whose day-to-day experience is still overwhelmingly affected by the violent crime at the heart of the story.

Koenig had approached the family of the victim for their participation and receiving no response had pressed on with the series regardless. Once the podcast had been hoisted aloft on the tides of viral popularity, the brother of the victim posted on a Reddit thread dedicated to Serial, admonishing listeners for forgetting that at the centre of the piece was his murdered sister and horribly traumatised mother (from whom he kept the existence of Serial). He wrote, “TO ME IT’S REAL LIFE. To you listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.”

Serial’s ending exposed the flawed nature of the enterprise from the beginning: if Koenig had been in possession of facts that proved the innocence of a wrongly incarcerated man, drawing those facts out over 12 weeks for the purposes of entertainment is morally dubious in the extreme. If she was not in possession of those facts, as she ultimately wasn’t, the point in Serial existing at all becomes unclear.

To tell an audience that memory is porous and fallible, that people cannot be trusted to accurately recall details because that’s not how our brains work, that America’s byzantine justice system is riddled with baffling particulars, that racism is very real, that people at all levels of our judiciaries are flawed, that we might lie out of self-interest, that truth is a construct the ultimate stuff of which is known only to the perpetrator of the crime; none of this is novel.

Whose purposes were served in the telling of this story? In the upending, again, of so many people’s lives? It’s real life. A girl was murdered. She is not a construct, or a story or an absent character to be lost in a larger media narrative. Perhaps justice was served; perhaps it was not. Either way it is a case now for the courts.

Making stories out of other people’s lives is both a privilege and a terror. The journalist’s borne responsibility is to do those people careful justice. 

Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep is a broadcaster and writer. Her first book of nonfiction, I Went Where I’ve Been, is forthcoming with Scribe. 

@Elmo_Keep

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