True crime podcasts: Beyond the story

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

I would guess that many people at Tech know who Adnan Syed is. I was certainly once hooked on “Serial,” the 2014 “This American Life” podcast that investigated the truth behind his conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. 

For many our age, I assume this podcast introduced us to true crime, capturing our attention and further propelling the genre to mass appeal. But as the show is once again in the news, a court recently vacated Syed’s conviction due to staggering flaws in the original trial, I am reminded of the show’s failings that 14-year-old me likely missed the first time around.

As a form of journalism, the show clearly succeeded: an investigative piece about a flawed twenty-year-old trial focused millions onto a case that likely would not have been scrutinized much otherwise. A man, whose summary 20 years in prison were the results of such failures, now has a chance at a new trial.

The issue, however, is that “Serial” as a phenomenon that extends far beyond journalism. I can guarantee you that most listeners, including myself, were not eagerly anticipating each episode from a perspective of institutional justice reform. 

The interest was not in who killed Lee, but in whether Adnan Syed did it, and that is an important distinction to make. In whodunnits, the intrigue does not lie with the victim. Audiences are encouraged to second guess their gut. At the end of one episode, you are convinced of Syed’s innocence, and the next moment, of his guilt. 

The program exists solely on the intrigue it manufactures. It is excellent storytelling, and while winning a vacated conviction was a journalistic success, keeping an audience engaged is a narrative success. However, it protrudes too far into a third, uglier reality. “Serial” offered hours of escape into a situation so far removed from our own lives that we forget we are intruding into someone else’s. 

The outpouring of support for Syed’s overturned conviction (which, again, is an overwhelmingly correct decision), was not echoed in sympathy for Lee’s family, whose sense of justice and pattern of grief have been wholly upended. 

A fixation on grief and loss do not heighten stakes or rivet audiences, yet those themes are perhaps the only constants in the “Serial” world. While the host Sarah Koenig concedes in the final episode that even she cannot say for sure what really happened, the reality for Lee’s family is unchanged. 

In this genre, the entire point is the unknown. But you cannot respect your subject and revive decades worth of pain only to then end in the same mystery you started with. While the ending kept listeners hooked on the case well beyond the original season’s airing, it is apparent that Lee never really was the subject. 

The fame “Serial” reached a point where obsession with the suspect could coexist with respect for the victim. Regardless of the show’s intentions, this underscores how cautious the media must be in this realm. As Lee’s own brother told reporters this week in the wake of Syed’s vacated conviction, “it was not a podcast for me, this is real life.” 

Another podcast, “S-Town,” which could be advertised as from-the-team-that-brought-you-Serial, offers a similar glimpse into why deeply sensitive and fraught stories should not be made for mass consumption.

“S-Town,” released in 2017, seemed first to be another murder mystery. Hosted by Brian Reed (Koenigas an editorial advisor), the opening episodes center around a mysterious murder in rural Alabama. 

That premise, however, is abandoned by the second episode, when the case in question is revealed to have never existed. John McLemore, the local man who had convinced Reed to travel south to investigate, turns out to be an engrossing one-man subject for a podcast. He becomes the show’s focus. 

“S-Town” truly is an incredible program, when placed in a vacuum removed of its realities. McLemore’s layered and broken relationship to his hometown, his community and his own identity makes a poignant and heartbreaking story, and Reed does a fine job weaving those elements together. Although McLemore was a forthcoming subject, I could not shake the feeling that his life was never meant for my ears. 

Not unlike “Serial,” it entertained hundreds of millions and arguably redefined what podcasts as a medium could accomplish. But it also highlights at what point an audience grows to the potential detriment of the subject. 

Although McLemore and Lee are people whose lives never intersected ours, these shows are only single-blind. You and I can check in and out of those worlds at will, but for McLemore’s and Lee’s communities, the show reopens and invites others to examine their deepest wounds.

The driver of “S-Town”’s thematic shift, for example, from true crime to the all-encompassing-study-of-American-and-human-identity-and-belonging, is McLemore’s sudden suicide.

It happened during production of the show, and became its main focus. 

Even when compared to shows that are nonfiction, such as “Dateline,” “S-Town” does not orchestrate a certain level of distance between audience and subject, but instead encourages the opposite. 

There is a certain indescribable quality to the radio that welcomes listeners more intimately into a world that isn’t necessarily theirs. In many genres this is a good thing and can build communities for fans. But in the case of these shows, this effect is actively harmful.

“S-Town” and “Serial” are deeply personal ventures that, no matter the intention, entertain at the cost of insurmountably vulnerable situations. 

Lee’s family remained convinced of Syed’s guilt and felt excluded from the most recent proceedings that vacated his conviction. Although granting a new trial is a positive outcome for separate reasons, you cannot convincingly argue that it has succeeded up to this point in doing good by her family.

In the case of “S-Town,” McLemore’s estate felt aggrieved enough to sue the producers of “S-Town.” Although the case was resolved after his estate acknowledged that McLemore had consented to much of the programming, a legal resolution does not end any sort of ethical discussion. Reed, the show’s host, even reveals information in an episode that he says McLemore asked to be kept off the record. 

Is it really our place to know such things, for example, as McLemore’s struggles as a gay man in a very Alabama-small-town? McLemore was clearly a brilliant and moving man, but it is tragic that his legacy is perhaps boiled down to the dictation of his suicide note on public radio.

Regarding “Serial,” there are many other criticisms which cannot be explored here, such as Koenig’s ignorance of the influence anti-Muslim bias had in the case. But the root of those failings is still found in sharing what you shouldn’t. 

True crime long predates “Serial,” of course, as do narratives-about-nothing, which “S-Town” effectively is. And neither will shrink from the public interest. 

While there were certainly good things to come out of both shows, the genres have also hardly ever felt this personal. 

The two should serve as a warning to what media ought to avoid being, especially in our present age of extremely online audience engagement. Perhaps subjects as intimate as these just aren’t meant for our consumption.