Serial: How One Podcast is Changing Journalism

I imagine I’m not the only one out there who has begun living for Thursday. You see, Thursday is the day that the new episode of Serial gets released.

But first a quick backgrounder for those of you who haven’t yet heard of it. Serial is a weekly podcast that is produced by the same fine people responsible for This American Life. It follows the case of Adnan Syed, a teenager who was convicted of the first-degree murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1999.

Syed is currently 15 years into serving a life sentence for the murder. He was 18 when he was convicted, but to this day, maintains his innocence. Syed, by the way, was Lee’s ex-boyfriend.

Image credit: Mashable

Serial debuted in October, and, in my opinion, pretty much took the world by storm. It started showing up in my social media feeds almost immediately, and being an avid lover of podcasts, I downloaded the first episode and, after listening to the first episode, I had to agree with the hype. I was hooked. Serial has been the #1 iTunes download for a few weeks running, now, and it has just been announced that it will get a second season.   There’s even a subreddit for the hard-core fans.

So, okay, it’s a phenomenon. We get it. It’s probably a lot more successful than even the producers imagined it would be. What’s the big deal?

Serial boldly goes where no podcast has gone before. I know that’s probably not true. It can’t be. In fact, there have been a glut of similar suggestions for folks who like the podcast. But I listen to a lot of podcasts–on quite a few different topics, from social media to sex, and I’ve never heard a podcast like this before. It’s kind of like Unsolved Mysteries, if it were a serial television show. It’s a whodunnit murder mystery, but the stakes are the highest–the characters are all real.

It gives us investigative reporting, without the snores. Let’s face it: unless you’re a huge fan of those kind of shows, you probably find the Fifth Estate or 20/20 incredibly boring. I do. But I am fascinated by Serial. There are many reasons for this, the primary one being the host, which I’ll get into later, but part of what makes it impossible to stop listening to this podcast is because no one (including the producers) seem to know where it will end. It’s like being in the middle of a documentary. You are following the threads, but you don’t know where they are leading. When you watch a documentary, someone has already gone through those threads and put them into some kind of order and made meaning of them. With Serial, we haven’t gotten there yet. We are still very much involved in the process, along for the ride, and it’s impossible to get off.

It takes us behind the scenes. Okay. I’m a white, middle-class woman living in one of the best cities in the world. In one of the best neighbourhoods in that city. I have a pretty awesome life. I know very little about what it’s like to grow up in a tough part of Baltimore. What it’s like to go through the court systems. My experience with that is what I see on TV, and we all know that has very little to do with reality. Some of the things I’ve learned from this podcast have been eye-opening and invaluable. Like, why would someone who claims innocence want a plea bargain? But when you hear his reasoning, and start to understand how the system works, it all makes sense.

Photo credit: Rolling Stone

Sarah Koenig is Everyman. For me, the most compelling part about the podcast is not the case (although it is incredibly compelling), but the host. Koenig is everyman. She is us (if we were incredibly meticulous and detail-oriented). She talks in normal language. She swears. Yes, she is an investigative reporter, an excellent one at that, but her script is not like something she’s written for a radio report or a newspaper story. It’s her talking to us–it sounds informal and off-the-cuff, and is, therefore, utterly engaging. Koenig takes us on her emotional journey, as well. I would guess most investigative reporters would say their #1 rule is “don’t get emotionally involved,” but Koenig confesses from the very start that she is, and that is what makes it so hard to stop listening. She is. And therefore, we are. Every time I listen to another episode, I’m stunned at how much I have grown to care for these characters. How emotionally invested I am. And that is something that would have never happened if Koenig had kept her emotional distance.

So. How is Serial changing journalism?

Social media in general is having a huge impact on journalism. First off, reporters are able to track people down on social media–if, for example, this murder had happened today, we would have FB status updates, tweets, texts, etc that would have much more easily been able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the major players at the time. Reporters are also able to connect to interviewees much easier, but putting calls out on Twitter, or using services like HARO.

Viral story = new information? With the popularity of the case, comes new information. In this past week’s episode, for example, kids who knew Syed at that time in High School had contacted Koenig with fresh information. Could this new information, or information that we’ve yet to discover, eventually solve the case? It’s entirely possible.

Serial has put pressure on the system. Last week, articles were circulating about how Syed has an appeal going forward in Maryland. Now, to be fair, this was a process begun before the podcast aired, but did the popularity of the podcast influence it? Maybe.

The internet, and social media specifically, has really changed journalism. While I feel like citizen journalism certainly has its place, we’re also not trained professionals, like Koenig is. Perhaps Serial is some kind of new hybrid–investigative reporting with a human heart.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

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