In following Serial, let’s not forget what the podcast is really about

In case you’ve managed to missed the most viral podcast sensation of the year, may we recommend Serial, the This American Life spin-off from producer Sarah Koenig that focuses on one story, thoroughly reported, for each season. Serial hones in on the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of brutally strangling his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. Syed maintains his innocence fifteen years later, while serving a life sentence for the crime. Koenig, whose attention was brought to the case by Syed’s family friend, has been slowly going over the pieces of the case week by week, combing through stale ledes and fresh evidence to try to investigate the question of Syed’s innocence.

Serial has gotten a cult following, and justly so: It’s an addictively interesting look at a story, told patiently and well by Koenig. But the storytelling aspect of the podcast sometimes obscures the fact that this is a real crime, not a radio play, and that the parties Koenig is talking to had their lives irreparably altered by the incident.

Consider the absolutely heartbreaking comments of Hae Min Lee’s mother to a courtroom in 2000: “”I would like to forgive Adnan Syed, but as of now, I just don’t know how I could. When I die, my daughter will die with me. As long as I live, my daughter is buried in my heart.”

And the Baltimore Sun went to revisit Syed’s family after all the recent attention the case has been getting, with equally wrenching results. Syed’s mother, Shamim Rahman, has shied away from social events since her son’s conviction, and feels weighed down by guilt and shame. “I’ve never cried,” Rahman told the Sun. “I have too much. I have to take care of my husband.” Syed’s brother, Yusuf, was bullied in school after his brother’s conviction. He still feels the pain of people judging him for his brother’s conviction. His father has stopped asking people about their families because, as he says, “If I ask them, they ask me.”

Serial is a great story, told sensitively and well. But it’s popularity has stemmed the collective frenzy to solve the mystery at the center of the case has had some troubling ethical implications about privacy.

“Serialized nonfiction in the Internet age means that conversations that might have previously happened around the watercooler are now being published themselves,” writes The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance. “Which means Serial‘s audience is producing its own stories full of sleuthing, critique, and conspiracy theories. Slate even recaps the podcast the way it recaps Mad Men. . .What is it, exactly, that people are participating in here? Are Serial listeners in it for the important examination of the criminal justice system? Or are we trawling through a grieving family’s pain as a form of entertainment? These are questions much more easily posed than answered.”

It seems that through the podcast’s popularity, the real issue—what this series is about—has been obscured. It’s about a devastating tragedy and a life lost too soon. It’s worth remembering that these are real people who suffered from this incident—they’re not just a puzzle to be solved.

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