Serial: We're listeners, not detectives

I love listening to Serial, the podcast you've already heard about where This American Life journalist Sarah Koenig revisits the 15-year-old murder case of Hae Min Lee, uncovering details week by week. Today in The Guardian, Jon Ronson, published an exclusive interview with the family of Adnan Syed, the man convicted of Lee's murder.

Serial: The Syed family on their pain and the ‘five million detectives trying to work out if Adnan is a psychopath’*:

Then came the conviction, and the family fell apart. Tanveer vanished to Philadelphia, becoming totally estranged from the family. “Imagine having a family one day, and the next day you wake up and it’s completely broken,” Yusuf says. “It’s all gone.”

And then came the Serial podcast. And suddenly people have started running up to the family with tears in their eyes.

People listening to the podcast are trying to crack the case themselves.

This article (both the article and the behaviour it talks about) make me uncomfortable. We must take Serial as the entertainment that it is. Koenig is doing a spectacular job of telling the story to us, the listener, but we need to remember that our job is as listeners. We're listening to Koenig's perspective on this story (albeit a very thoroughly researched perspective), and we have never been invited to get involved and start doing our own interviews with the people close to the crime.

When the general public or the press start contacting the family of Lee, a murder victim, or the Syed family (reminder: Adnan Syed is still a convicted murderer, no matter your opinion based on Serial), a line has been crossed. These families have been trying to rebuild their lives for the past decade and a half, and having every news outlet and amateur sleuth on the internet knocking on their door is not going to help their personal circumstances.

“I haven’t told Sarah this,” Yusuf [Syed] says, “but we feel Serial has brought us all back together. My older brother Tanveer – who was estranged for 15 years – he came home. When he heard my brother’s voice, it brought back all the memories. He’s visited us three or four times already.”

Hidden towards the end of Ronson's article in The Guardian, this snippet gave me a glimmer of hope that Serial isn't entirely bad for those close to the horrific events of 1999. However this is only one family; based on a verified posting on Reddit, Hae Min Lee's family aren't so happy with their new-found fame - and I'm sure the public sympathy towards the man convicted of their daughters' murder doesn't help.

If Syed is innocent, or if the podcast raises enough doubt in the minds of the US justice system that a retrial or appeal occurs, then it's pretty easy to justify the additional press coverage of these families... and I'd hope that nobody would begrudge a retrial, if there was sufficient evidence that Syed might be innocent.

Until then, the friends and family of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed need to be left alone. Enjoy the show, but don't do further harm to those who have already suffered enough.


Thanks for reading.

I'd love to hear your feedback and comments. E-mail me, ross@rossp.org, or get in touch on Twitter where I'm @RossPoulton. Chat soon!