Serial journalism

If you haven’t listened to the NPR show “Serial” (available for free as Podcasts online as http://serialpodcast.org), you are missing some of what may be the best journalism ever.  Serial is a spin-off of NPR’s “This American Life.”  The premise is simple.  Reporter Sarah Koenig examines a single murder case with an abundance of questions surrounding it.  Is the man convicted of the crime really the one who did it?

There are a total of 12 episodes. The introduction to part 1 is described this way on their website.  “It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent – though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon.”

Her goal is to see if Syed is really the killer (he was convicted) as there are so many cracks in the case.  On the other hand, there are problems with his story too.

Each episode (times vary), Koenig examines different aspects of the case in great detail.  She looks at everything from the big picture to the smallest details.  She discusses the quality of the witnesses and looks for both consistency in their stories as well as inconsistencies.

Her reporting feels extraordinarily fair as she examines every nook and cranny of the case.  She tries to talk to as many of the original people involved in the case, including some who were not called to testify yet might have impacted the outcome.  Most people agreed to be recorded.  She regularly recorded discussions with Syed posing very direct questions. His answers often leave us wondering if he is guilty or not.  Even Koenig discusses how she sways back and forth, sometimes thinking he is innocent, other times not so sure.

The extensive reporting is so thorough, she even examines evidence like what calls were made when from Syed’s cellphone and what towers picked up the signal (to help determine where he was at any given time).  She spends a good deal of time examining the credibility of “Jay,” the key witness for the prosecution.  She notes how parts of his story changed over time, yet other parts stayed the same.

Koenig’s reporting extends to herself, as she admits her changing biases and feelings along the way. As listeners, that gives us more context in evaluating her presentation of the facts.

In addition, there are lots of materials available at the serialpodcast.org website to augment the “serial” including maps, letters, pictures and relationship charts.

Serial is non-fiction, but reads like a great story and it shows that long form journalism still has a place in this short attention span world.