As you’ve probably heard by now, Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer at the center of the hit podcast Serial, was granted a new trial Thursday (June 30), after a Baltimore judge ruled that he received “ineffective assistance” from his attorney when he was tried 16 years ago.
This news is a step towards answering two big questions. The first, what millions of listeners have pondered since the podcast launched in 2014, is “Did he do it?”
But it also settles another question surrounding the podcast: Is Serial entertainment or is it journalism? The answer is that it’s both—but now, with Syed getting a new trial, it’s likely to be remembered for being the latter.
Serial hasn’t necessarily saved an innocent man. Adnan Syed may not be exonerated, and whatever the outcome of the trial, he could still be Hae Min Lee’s murderer. But the show did serve justice in a larger sense: In her investigation of Lee’s murder, host and producer Sarah Koenig managed to show that the suspect—innocent or guilty—did not receive a fair trial. It’s a testament to the strength of Serial‘s reporting that Syed will, shockingly, see a new day in court.
Koenig has long said that Serial was a journalistic endeavor and that its growth into a pop culture phenomenon was incidental. “I think that telling stories this way—with artistry—creates empathy,” she said earlier this year at a lecture at Syracuse University. “Artistry is OK in reporting as long as you’re sticking to the truth.”
Part of what made the show so gripping was its narrative structure, which followed Koenig on her reporting trail. “It’s not like I have everything in a big basket and I’m just sort of stringing it up on the line at my whim,” she told the New York Times in 2014. “What we know how to do is structure a story well. To us, it just didn’t feel that different from a really long magazine story.”
But none of that prevented the series from ballooning into something far beyond Koenig’s control, something that did not exist until Serial: a megahit podcast. Podcasts aren’t supposed to be hits—they’re what you listen to in order to stave off boredom on a long commute, not what you binge on. They’re what you download in advance of a plane trip when you know you won’t have wifi access to watch Netflix.
Serial was the podcast that changed all that. It averaged 3.4 million listeners per episode when it ended in December 2014. That’s more than many buzzy television shows, including HBO’s True Detective and Silicon Valley. As of this February, it had been downloaded 80 million times, making it easily the most popular podcast of all time.
Still, the podcast was not without its ethical questions. Should journalism be “serialized,” presented in weekly installments, with cliffhangers and teasers for the following episode? Some also have criticized the show, whose rabid followers have flooded the internet with their theories of what happened, for intervening in, and possibly skewing the truth of, a real tragedy with a real victim.
“TO ME ITS REAL LIFE,” the murder victim’s brother wrote in a post on Reddit last year. “To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.” He conceded, however, that he could see why the story of his sister’s murder was so compelling to outsiders: “Although I do not like the fact that [Sarah Koenig] pick[ed] our story to cover, she is an awesome narrator/writer/investigator. No wonder why this podcast is so popular.”
It’s true. No matter what Koenig or the other producers intended, Serial was an entertaining and addictive murder mystery—one that many “binge-listened” to. The fact that it was a true story made it even more engrossing. As hooked listeners picked one side or the other on the question of “Did Adnan do it?”, the podcast became a cultural obsession on the level of a hit television show.
Other podcasts have tried to replicate Serial’s success, but none have come close engaging such a wide audience or leading to real-world change the way that Serial did—not even Serial itself. The second season of the podcast, which investigated the desertion, captivity, and return of United States Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was not met with nearly the same fervor as the first season, detailing Lee’s murder.
Ultimately, with the news that Syed will receive a new trial, Serial‘s legacy will be one of dogged investigative journalism. Its reporting has altered the course of its own story.
In doing this—bringing facts to light that lead to legal or political consequences—it follows in the footsteps of legendary American journalism such as the Washington Post’s reporting on Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic church’s coverup of abuse by priests. Several high-profile TV shows and documentaries have also done this lately. Think The Jinx (real estate heir and suspected murderer Robert Durst was arrested in part based on evidence uncovered by the HBO docuseries); or Blackfish (SeaWorld announced this year, following this documentary, that it will stop breeding killer whales and phase out its “Shamu” shows).
Serial took it a step further in that, as a piece of reporting and as a cultural phenomenon, it became a part of the story. It inspired a phalanx of obsessive listeners to dig into the story too, and even to turn up new evidence that the podcast had not uncovered.
Whatever one thinks of its methods and narrative style, as the years go on and the immediacy of Serial‘s pop culture impact fades, what will remain is that a convicted murderer got another chance because of journalism.
If Syed is exonerated in his new trial (or if a deal is arranged and he’s freed based on time already served in prison, or if the state declines to prosecute the case again), Serial will forever be known as the podcast that led to the liberation of a victim of injustice. Or it’ll be the podcast that released a killer back into society—depending on whom you ask.