'Serial' should never have been made

(This post was originally published on 1/5/2015)

Like so many others this past fall, I became fascinated by the Serial podcast. It was a new take on radio journalism, longform journalism and crime storytelling, and an overall unique way to produce and consume a story.

In the first episode, Ira Glass mentions the draw of the show is that the audience will "go with Sarah [Koenig] on her hunt to figure out what really happened" and "learn the answers as she does." Many times the idea is repeated that Koenig doesn't know what really happened that day in 1999 and is searching for some clarity.

(***SPOILERS AHEAD***)

After listening to the entire season, I concluded that making Serial was an irresponsible decision because it ultimately led nowhere, had no true angle (as all feature pieces should) and it created a cult-like public fixation with a story that impacted a real family, a family that had to sit back and watch a dark time in its past become nothing but entertainment for a worldwide audience.

I started the series well aware that all of it could be for nothing and that I could be wasting my time listening. Twelve episodes later I was disappointed to have proven myself right. Koenig didn't uncover anything and she left her story incomplete; a story that, if she really wanted to share, should have been explored privately and vetted thoroughly to ensure there was enough substance to merit bringing it out of the shadows after 15 years.

Throughout the series, Koenig got noticeably frustrated during interviews when her subject's quotes or findings contradicted the "soup-of-the-day" conclusion that she had drawn in that particular episode. This exposed a key problem with the show: it had no defined angle.

The question that constantly arose for me, and I wish I could ask it to Koenig, was, "What did you honestly expect to happen when you started exploring this story?"

Koenig said  she's not a detective or an investigator, but her animated reactions and expressions throughout the season showed that she was approaching this case like much more than someone simply trying to tell a story. Her frustrations led me to believe she was searching for anything to make the angle of her story, a story that she had already made public, more definitive and satisfying to the audience.

There wouldn't have been any issue if Koenig went through with the investigation beforehand, found nothing and scrapped the story. That happens to plenty of journalists. But the problem arose when she set off on a very public investigation with nothing more than a few "maybe's".

The end can’t simply be the conclusion of the middle

Storytelling, as I was taught as a young student, requires a beginning, middle and end, with a well-defined conclusion that ties together the rest of the story. This story had a beginning (the murder and subsequent trials), a middle (Koenig re-examining the case because maybe the trials got it wrong), but no end. The end can't simply be the conclusion of the middle. Rather, it needs to answer questions, show the resolution in the context of the greater story and explain how every detail that was previously told holds some significance to the overall conclusion. Serial failed to do that.

The final issue I had with Serial was that it, though unintentionally, created a public obsession with a story that, in light of the ultimate findings (or lack thereof), maybe should have been left in the dark.

I live near the area of Baltimore in which the story occurred. To put it in perspective, I attend the mosque Adnan Syed and his family did, and I pass the infamous Best Buy every week on my way to Friday prayers. 

At times while listening to the series, I thought, "Maybe I should visit the Best Buy or the high school. This happened so close to me after all!" I recently saw a picture on Instagram of someone I knew standing in front of Woodlawn High School smiling casually and referencing Serial in the caption. Many message boards have been created with countless theories about what happened in the case.

All of this is evidence of the cultish mania the podcast created. And for what? So a podcast could get a few listeners? So news could be created?

It certainly doesn't seem like Koenig and her team set out to examine a delicate story and tell it in a healthy way. This obsession could have been prevented had the team researched, produced and told the story properly: by first ensuring that a story was actually there, rather than trying to innovate for the sake of it and going out on a limb while taking millions of people to the dead end with them.

Instead, a painful old wound was publicly reopened for two families and a community to suffer through again, all because of a story that was told irresponsibly. 

Naveed Siddiqui