Like a lot of people out there, I’m just a tiny bit obsessed with the podcast Serial right now. I came to it late — although its first episode dropped at the beginning of October, I didn’t start listening to it until last weekend during a several-hours-long bus ride between my home and the city. I plowed through the first six episodes during my commute there and back, and I’ve been catching up on the latest three this week while on the stationary bike at the gym. I’ve gotten sucked straight into Sarah Koenig’s investigation of Hae Min Lee, Adnan Syed, and the events of January 13, 1999 (and everything that came both before and after it); I’ve also gotten sucked into the many complicated discussions about the podcast itself — its production, its reporter, its treatment of some of the issues embedded deep within the case, whether or not it’s exploitative.
I’m enthralled, and yet frequently troubled by own enthrallment. At the same time, though, I’ve also gotten at least a few things out of Serial and the conversations surrounding it that I would classify as “good”: It’s making me think, and it’s making me question everything — about myself, about the media, about the world, and more. Although my running list is far longer, here are eight things Serial has made me question:
1. Why Don’t I Listen to More Podcasts?
I can count the number of podcasts I listen to regularly on one hand: Two (for the curious, Welcome to Nightvale and Serial). Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that I really need to start listening to more of them, and for a lot of reasons. For one, they make you think more. It’s easy to tune out a television; it makes for good background noise, but you often don’t have to pay terribly close attention to it when it’s on. Listening to a story, however, demands your attention. You hang on every word to avoid missing anything, and as a result, it engages you in a much more active way.
And then there’s this: You know how when you put the television on for background noise and tune out when you’re focused on performing an activity at the same time? It’s kind of the reverse with podcasts: When you listen hard, whatever action you’re performing goes on autopilot. This means that cleaning your apartment, working out, and all kinds of other activities that might otherwise be chores suddenly zip by in no time at all. Way to boost your productivity, right?
2. Is Who’s Telling a Story Is as Important as the Story Itself?
There are at least as many conversations happening about Serial itself — its popularity, its reporting, how its spinning out its narrative, and so on — as there are about its subject. This is as it should be; there’s a lot to unpack. Much has been made, for example, about “white reporter privilege” — that is, the fact that Sarah Koenig is white, while the case she’s investigating involves two distinct immigrant communities. Does she get it right?
That’s what Jay Caspian King addressed in a piece written for The Awl titled “ Serial and White Reporter Privilege.” Rabia Chaudry, who first contact Koenig about the story, told King, “I don’t know to what extent someone who hasn’t grown up in a culture can really understand the culture. I think Sarah tried to get it, but I don’t know if she ever really did.” The racial implications are uncomfortable, but we can't ignore them.
3. How Imperfect Are My Own Memories?
Koenig opens the first episode of Serial with a discussion about memory — specifically, the imperfection of it. It stuck with me, both as an engrossing hook and as a concept in and of itself. Can you remember what you did last Thursday? In order? With time stamps? And who you were with when you were doing it and what you were wearing? Most of us probably can’t recall those kinds of details unless something notable happened that day to make it stand out. Sometimes we even manufacture false memories and convince ourselves that they’re true without even knowing that we’re doing it. Just, y’know… bear that in mind the next time you swear you remember something.
4. Is There Really Such a Thing as “Truth,” Or Is It All Just Relative?
Events can seem totally different depending on from whose point of view you’re looking. We see this time and time again in Serial: What one person remember as a huge deal, another brushes off as a minor annoyance; a behavior that seems innocent in one light might be sinister in another; and everything is constantly shifting and changing depending on who and what populates the landscape it’s in. If this doesn’t drive home the importance if irrefutable facts, I don’t know what will.
5. How Am I Consuming Media?
I think the description of the podcast as exploitative comes directly out of its popularity — and maybe there’s a point to be made about what happens when something achieves that sort of popularity. What’s keeping us listening to Serial — what always keeps us listening, or watching, or reading a story, no matter what the story itself is or the medium in which it’s being told — all comes down to one question: “What happens next?” But sometimes, even if we know that the story is true, we still treat it like it’s fiction. We lose sight of the fact that the voices we’re hearing aren’t characters; they’re real people, and these events really happened. To avoid this disconnect, we need to be mindful of how we consume media, and Serial is a good reminder of that fact.
In a post at Refinery29 titled “Should We Feel Guilty About Our Serial Obsession?”, Lexi Nisita wrote that perhaps the way we need to be listening to and talking about Serial is this:
“When I'm getting carried away in a debate about whether or not he did it, taking Buzzfeed quizzes and #TeamAdnan tweeting away, I imagine Hae Min Lee's family listening to this, watching this unfold, reading those tweets and then I feel like this is a lurid exercise in voyeurism. Then I think about the 95% of said Buzzfeed quiz-takers who agreed that Adnan's trial was mishandled and I wonder: Imperfect and morally challenging as it might be, maybe this show will push a generation of people to think more deeply about our legal system and the increasingly powerful role that public opinion plays in that. And, maybe, the next time a Laci Peterson case hits national news, the water cooler talk will be just a little bit more self-aware.”
I think she’s spot on. We do need to remind ourselves that Hae Min Lee’s family is still dealing with her loss; if we do this, then maybe self-awareness will come.
6. What Is Fandom, and How Can We Make It Responsible?
This one is connected to the question of how we’re consuming media: As The Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance pointed out, serialized non-fiction is an age-old journalistic format; additionally, the true crime genre is by no means new. Somehow, though, Serial feels different — which might be because of the fandom it has spawned. “Maybe the ethical implications of this kind of storytelling are less McLuhanian — they’re not so much about the medium being the message — and more about the cultural context that shapes this moment in broadcast,” Lafrance wrote. “In other words, maybe it has more to do with the show’s listeners than it does with its producers.”
A lot of the criticism leveled at Serial has to do with ethical journalism (and rightly so) — but I think the fandom needs a certain kind of ethical consideration, as well. That's what being mindful of how you consume media is all about.
7. Can You Ever Really Know Anyone?
The conclusion I’ve come to is: No. Not even yourself. It’s sobering, to say the least. Maybe I’ll change my mind again, though, because there’s also this:
8. How Easily Can You Change Your Mind?
Answer: Incredibly easily. One small detail might make all the difference.