At 68 million downloads and counting, the This American Life spin-off podcast Serial is the biggest story in the medium. The show’s set up was simple: Serial’s team thought the investigation of the Baltimore, Maryland, murder was sloppy and lacked the evidence needed to convict a then 19-year-old named Adnan Syed. Reporter and narrator Sarah Koenig and her team spent the first season dissecting the 1999 conviction of Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee.
Like any murder mystery in the Internet era, theories shot up online everywhere, but the number one place to find Serial discussion was a subreddit devoted to the show–it’s the second hit when you Google the actual word “subreddit.” The forum wasn’t just nerds throwing out unfounded theories, it’s a place where people related to the parties involved addressed the forum, where valid questions about the evidence were raised, and some of the people who took the witness stand’s personal information was exposed.
The biggest target of the subreddit was key witness Jay Wilds, whose testimony led to Syed’s conviction. The show’s narrative didn’t raised questions about Wilds’ character, involvement in the crime, and potential coaching from the police and legal team in order to convict Syed. With her scholarly, calm NPR voice, peppered with outdated slang thrown in to establish that she’s “hip,” Koenig and Serial created doubt Wilds, though no actual evidence was unveiled about him throughout the podcast, other than hearsay that he stabbed people for fun.
Although it’s not a direct result of Serial’s reporting, Syed was recently granted an appeal by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and anyone in the Reddit community who believed his innocence is elated, so that’s nice for them.
What’s confusing is that while the audience is rooting for a fair trial for a convicted murderer after devouring the podcast’s first season, Wilds has been harassed and stalked, which he details in an exclusive interview with The Intercept. No one cares though, because Wilds cooperated with the police in the investigation–not the podcast.
So how does a responsible journalist feel about the repercussions of her investigation?
Koenig’s response to a question regarding Reddit’s involvement with the case in a discussion a the New School in New York City hosted by The New York Times was pretty much, “Whoopsy!” See here:
“No. I didn’t even know what Reddit was before this. I heard about it during the Boston bombing. I knew that there was this thing that had happened, but no I didn’t know Reddit.”
Makes sense: A journalist can’t Google things, specifically a place where lawyer Rabia Chaudry–the person who brought the case to her attention–is actively commenting and starting threads. Definitely not the forum that posts links, showing where you could donate to Syed’s defense fund, and absolutely not the place that’s posting Wilds’ address. Nah.
For Syed, Reddit has proved to be a massive aid, as a Time online piece says that the forum provided key tips for The Innocence Project, an organization that worked with the podcast, advocating DNA testing that was absent from the original trial. But Koenig doesn’t really seem to care or understand what’s happening, and is perfectly content with the job she’s done, saying this at the New School discussion:
“As a reporter I’m responsible for all this information, and it’s my job to use it respectfully and correctly and fact-check the crap out of every single thing I say, and that was not incumbent on the Reddit community. It’s a public forum. They can say whatever they want. But I also don’t want to encourage stuff that I think is irresponsible.”
OK–just so we’re all clear–there’s a massive forum devoted to your show, that’s actively finding useful information and stalking people involved with the case, but it’s just “no biggie” to Koenig, because she’s “checked the crap out of everything she’s said”?
Perhaps Koenig’s been too consumed with her new found celebrity to worry about the repercussions of her reporting, aside from coming up with evidence that could help Syed’s appeal. She’s super busy appearing on fake news shows, along with her speaking engagements and panel discussions.
It certainly couldn’t be that she’s more concerned with her opinion that the trial–which only took jurors two hours to come to the unanimous decision of guilty–was flawed. Besides, season one is a wrap and there has to be an injustice out there to expose in season two. Luckily for Koenig, she won’t even have to Google anything to find a new premise, as people are happy to just hand her content.