Off the Board, Opinion

Sarah Koenig is not perfect and neither is ‘Serial’

On Jan. 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, disappeared. On Feb. 9, 1999, her body was discovered in Baltimore’s Leakin Park, and on Feb. 25, 2000, her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was found guilty on charges of first-degree murder. Fifteen years later, Rabia Chaudry—an attorney, advocate, best-selling author, and childhood acquaintance of Syed’s—reached out to Sarah Koenig, a producer on This American Life, and, from there, Serial was born. 

Over the course of the 12-episode podcast, Koenig re-investigates the disappearance and murder of Hae Min Lee. She picks apart inconsistencies within the prosecution’s case against Syed, uncovering new information and putting a plethora of chronic issues within the American justice system on display. Koenig’s narration, however, blurs the line between straight-up reporting and something more opinionated. Serial is not only about Syed and Lee—it is about Koenig’s storytelling, an unconventional structure that lands Serial in an ethical grey area revealed by Koenig’s relationship with Syed, tendency to withhold information, and neglect of Lee’s family. 

After maintaining his innocence for 22 years, Syed’s conviction was vacated on Sept. 19, 2022. As a former listener, I had spent endless hours puzzling over Syed’s innocence. Koenig’s dulcet tone was a constant in my life, a hallmark of my walks to class and morning coffees. I was all too happy to have Serial back in my life with an emergency episode addressing Syed’s release— but this time, something felt different. With eight years having passed since the podcast’s release, those complicated ethics were no longer in italics, they were in bold. 

Koenig’s bizarre relationship with Syed is cause for concern. The personal nature of their conversations forces me to question how this relationship factored into her reporting. When Koenig encountered red flags that may have countered her narrative of Syed’s innocence, such as inconsistencies with his alibi, she tended to play them off as stray details that she didn’t know what to make of. Why not follow the lead?

Koenig’s provocation of arm-chair detectives to speculate about the case alongside her invades the privacy of all those involved. In turning Hae Min Lee’s murder into a dramatized whodunit, Koenig transforms the real people involved into characters who no longer have agency over how their story is told, as is often the case with true crime. Koenig’s reporting of an investigation she had not finished, along with her tendency to withhold information for the sake of cliffhangers, further provoked listeners to conduct their own research at the cost of Lee’s privacy. She allowed millions of listeners to justify poring over a dead girl’s diary, speculating about Lee’s relationships, and posting outlandish conspiracies all over the internet. 

Although this wasn’t Koenig’s intention, Serial catalyzed a never-ending nightmare for the Lee family. The podcast has served as a constant reminder of the horrors of Lee’s death, and her family has been clear that they did not want Lee’s story plastered all over the internet. The innumerable flaws of the justice system not only failed Syed—they failed Lee as well. With Serial’s intended narrative revolving around finding justice for Syed, this sentiment seems to be lost not only on listeners, but on Koenig, too. 

My last point of criticism is directed at Koenig’s career post-Serial. Although she was well into her journalistic career, the podcast skyrocketed Koenig into a whole new level of fame. Following the success of season one, Serial was renewed for a second season, developed into a four-part HBO documentary, and bought for $25 million by the New York Times in 2020. Koenig has benefitted financially and professionally from Serial’s success, while the friends and family of Syed and Lee have little to show from the podcast’s success. 

I don’t want to discourage anyone from listening to Serial. I’m just saying that Koenig was not perfect in her execution of the podcast. She missed details and crossed lines that should’ve never been breached. She did not bring justice for Adnan Syed, or for Hae Min Lee, but that’s not what she set out to do. She told an enthralling yet flawed story because that is who she is. A storyteller. And a damn good one at that.

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  1. Paul Kohler

    “She did not bring justice for Adnan Syed, or for Hae Min Lee” isn’t true if Syed didn’t commit the crime. And if the re-investigation is inconclusive then it will shine a light on the need for an improved Justice & investigation system, which is already true.

  2. Syed’s guilt is all but certain, and indeed the most damning evidence was glossed over or ignored entirely by this spurious podcast produced by these sleazy opportunists posing as social crusaders. Still, Koenig’s exploitation of Hae’s horror did prompt some kind of justice by springing Syed; he served enough time for something he did as a kid – heinous though it was. I hope now that whatever compensation he gets from Maryland is handed right over to Hae’s family in a wrongful death civil suit.

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