Serial Podcast and the Ethical Questions of Narrative Journalism

From the outset, Serial host Sarah Koenig has established herself as a flawed, relatable narrator and character. Time and again she aligns herself with the unwitting audience as a clueless amateur sleuth, digging through police files and court transcripts, interviewing friends and teachers of Syed and Lee, displaying the same uninformed intrigue as fans on Reddit speculation pages and dedicated Facebook groups. In a number of interviews across Vulture, Slate, TIME and other publications that have sprung up at this halfway point, Koenig positions herself as just like you or me. “If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you,” she states time and time again.

But information is being deliberately withheld, for instance a response from the State’s main witness and Syed’s stoner pal, Jay, or even Jay’s surname or reference to his lack of response; likewise we’ve heard nothing from Stephanie – a key figure, Jay’s girlfriend, Syed’s friend. Other events or pieces of the story/case are held over for when it serves a particular episode’s plot like a particular (maybe game-changing) cell conversation dubbed “The Nisha Call”. All the while, the moral realities of this kind of reportage remain unacknowledged (how do Lee’s family feel about this? Are they listening?).

Stephanie Van Schilt on our obsession with Serial and the tricky questions of storytelling in nonfiction.

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