The Backlash Against Serial—and Why It's Wrong

A defense of the podcast, its producer, and the This American Life approach to narrative journalism

Since its October debut, This American Life producer Sarah Koenig's Serial has quickly become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed podcasts ever produced. Its episodes are a serialized inquiry into the 1999 murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee. Did Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, really strangle her? Or was he an innocent teen condemned to life in prison for a crime he didn't commit? The possibility of exoneration is a recurring theme. In fact, the show's reporting caused the Maryland Innocent Project to launch its own probe of the case.

Despite that context, a small community of detractors is subjecting Serial to a scathing critique framed in the language of social justice. Its narrator and producer stands accused of exemplifying white privilege, stereotyping Asian Americans and Muslims, racism against blacks, and making "people of color" cringe. We'll get to the examples marshaled to support those critiques in a moment.

They're worth addressing for two reasons.

One is their plausibility. Journalism requires its practitioners to delve into unfamiliar subjects, communities, and subcultures. Mistakes happen often and can be difficult for the reporter or audience to discern. So the charge, "You got that country wrong," or "you misjudged that church," or "you don't understand how such companies work," or "that's not how it is in that political faction," or "you fell into stereotypes when writing about that ethnic community" should never be dismissed. The best course is to reflect on the critique with as open a mind as possible. As often as not, there is at least something to be learned from the critic.

The second reason to address these critiques is that the show's reception among those invested in social justice will help determine whether other experiments like it are attempted. Should more journalism like Serial receive funding or enjoy the moral and financial support of podcast listeners in the future, or is there something "problematic," cringeworthy, or even racist about this kind of journalism? The stigma attached to those characterizations could cause producers, editors, or reporters to shy away from similar projects, whether for better or worse.

* * *

Let's get my biases out of the way. As a longtime fan of This American Life and especially of Koenig's past work, I went into Serial with high expectations. On first listen, I was not disappointed. The plot was riveting. Avid listeners couldn't help learning civically valuable details about the criminal-justice system. And I detected nothing objectionable about the podcast with respect to white privilege, race, or ethnicity. I did reflect on the ethical implications of publicly reinvestigating a murder case in a way that would likely force the family of the victim to relive it. But I concluded that the nontrivial chance of a wrongful conviction made renewed inquiry a moral imperative (if not for this podcast then for someone).

Despite all that, I kept an open mind when I saw Jay Caspian Kang's article in The Awl, "'Serial' and White Reporter Privilege." In part, this is because "white-reporter privilege" sounds like just the sort of thing I might not discern. I also have a high opinion of The Awl's cultural analysis, and hold Kang in even higher esteem. After reading "The High Is Always the Pain and the Pain is Always the High," which I selected as one of the best pieces written in 2011, I felt sure I wanted to read everything he ever published. In doing so, I've found much of his writing on race in America to offer uncommon nuance and insight.

In Serial, the victim, Hae, is a Korean-American daughter of immigrants, while the man convicted of killing her, Adnan, is the son of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan. "Sarah Koenig, the journalist telling their story, is white," Kang writes. "This, on its face, is not a problem. If Serial were a newspaper story or even a traditional magazine feature, the identities of all three could exist alone as facts; the reader could decide how much weight to place upon them. But Serial is an experiment in two old forms: the weekly radio crime show, and the confessional true-crime narrative, wherein the journalist plays the role of the protagonist. The pretense of objectivity is stripped away: Koenig emerges as the subject as the show’s drama revolves not so much around the crime, but rather, her obsessions with it."

To my ear, the show's drama is only tangentially related to Koenig's obsessions. Even apart from that, it isn't clear that the format matters in the way Kang asserts. Plenty of books and magazine features dispense with any pretense of objectivity. Plenty of ostensibly "objective" newspaper stories interpret racial and ethnic context, whether clumsily or adeptly. Broadcast is a unique format insofar as it allows us to hear sources speaking in their own voices. And Serial's audience absolutely decides how much weight to put on Koenig's editorial choices—they're all debated exhaustively in communities like the Serial subreddit.

Koenig "stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities," Kang writes, arguing that "especially for people of color," she is "talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong." He sees her mistakes as characteristic of "well-intentioned white people" who retain a bankrupt understanding of other cultures despite their best efforts.

To illustrate this, he offers readers two examples from Serial. What he characterizes as the more objectionable example occurred in Episode 2. I've transcribed it below. Can you guess what part he regards as a white reporter going into an immigrant community and getting things wrong? Here's what Koenig narrates:

The other information I have to go on are Hae's own words about their relationship, because I have a copy of her diary. It was entered into evidence at trial. It was read by many people: cops, prosecutors, even Adnan. What's remarkable about the diary, and what makes it so helpful, is that it's essentially a chronicle of the Adnan-era of Hae's life. The first entry is April 1, 1998, right when they started going out. And the last entry is dated January 12, the day before she went missing. And in all those months what she's mostly writing about is Adnan. If you had to bookend Adnan and Hae's romance you'd put a dance right at the beginning and then another one right at the end. The first dance was junior prom. Adnan and his best friend had a little competition going about who could get the prettiest prom date that year. Someone said Adnan should ask Hae to go, so one day after sports practice, on a little hill behind the school, he asked her to prom and she said yes.

On April 27 she wrote a long entry in her diary about prom night. Her diary by the way–well, I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting her diary to be like, but it's such a teenage girl's diary. She jumps from her boyfriend to driver's ed to the field hockey game. She's bubbly one minute, and the next she's upset with her mother, or dissing her friend, or complaining about homework. So prom night. She writes about Adnan, I swear he is the sweetest guy. I'll tell you why. He was prom prince and Stephanie was prom princess. And traditionally they were supposed to dance together, to *my* song. I tried to act natural and unjealous, but it did kind of bother me. Ten seconds later, guess who danced with me but not with Stephanie? Adnan!

Now how could I not fall in love with this guy?

Kang's critique emphasizes the words, "Her diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girl's diary." The statement "seems to suggest a colorblind ideal," he says, of a Baltimore where "kids will be kids, regardless of race or background." But he sees more:

I imagine there are many listeners—especially amongst people of color—who pause and ask, “Wait, what did you expect her diary to be like?” or “Why do you feel the need to point out that a Korean teenage girl’s diary is just like a teenage girl’s diary?” and perhaps, most importantly, “Where does your model for ‘such a teenage girl’s diary’ come from?” These are annoying questions, not only to those who would prefer to mute the nuances of race and identity for the sake of a clean, 'relatable' narrative, but also for those of us who have to ask them because Koenig is talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong.

This is a weak example to illustrate his theory. Kang himself presents the ostensibly objectionable passage as ambiguous. He doesn't pretend to know what Koenig did mean, only what she could have meant. He says listeners might have questions. There's nothing wrong with raising questions about ambiguous passages, but doing so doesn't actually support the thesis that a show is getting it wrong.

As a commenter at The Awl put it, "While it's true that Koenig was holding the banality of the diary up against Hae's otherwise unusual life, the unusual-ness didn't come from her membership in an immigrant community. It came from the fact that she was murdered ... I'd say the author took the quote out of context, almost egregiously so. The aim of that episode is explicit: to explore the nature of the relationship between this girl and the young man given a life sentence for her murder. And—whaddaya know!—the journalist has in her hands the girl's diary. A coup! What could it possibly say about that relationship? Alas, it shows she was just a normal girl. Expectations deflated. Messy real life intrudes on the hard-boiled detective novel trope of a case-cracking clue contained in the secret diary."

Another commenter wrote, "When I heard Koenig say she was surprised that Hae's diary was *such* a teenage girl diary, in my mind I interpreted it along the lines that it's been a long time since Koenig was a teenager herself or since perhaps she interacted deeply with teenage girls, and so upon reading Hae's diary she was shocked by how classically twee it was. I did not hear any indication in that podcast that Koenig was surprised that Korean girl would have written a diary like Hae's. It's probably been a long time since most of us were teenagers, and frankly teenagers are idiots most of the time. It's always hilariously shocking to get into the mind of one and be reminded what that time was like ..."

I agree that those interpretations are more plausible. As Lindsay Beyerstein notes in The New York Observer, "There’s nothing in Serial that suggests that Ms. Koenig’s mild surprise at Hae’s boy-crazy diary stems from any assumption about what Korean people’s diaries are like. Absolutely nothing. It’s a total non sequitur." It is uncharacteristically uncharitable for Kang to assume that Koenig was alluding to having ignorantly otherized Hae on the basis of her racial identity.

But even if we accept Kang's speculation (even if Koenig's initial perception of Hae displayed something like the reflexive prejudice that Louis CK captures at the 7:16 mark of this routine, and it took reading the diary for Koenig to realize she'd made an ignorant assumption) notice how that still isn't a story of her whiteness causing Serial to portray Hae inaccurately. That's a story of someone with a stereotyped reaction to an Asian American doing enough reporting to overcome that lamentable prejudice. Again, I don't think that was Koenig's meaning. But if it was, while it's understandable that Kang would cringe at a nod to the prejudice Koenig felt before realizing Hae's diary wasn't that of a stereotyped other, listeners ultimately form an accurate impression of Hae and her diary from its words. Isn't overcoming initial ignorance or prejudice part of good reporting?*

What's more, even if Koenig had done a poor job reporting, even if her ostensibly prejudicial stereotyping or unfamiliarity with immigrant culture had caused her to bungle this aspect of the story, would the best frame for describing that be "white-reporter privilege"? Is failing at one's job or harboring ignorant stereotypes about an ethnic group most accurately characterized as an unearned advantage? Would a black or Hispanic reporter necessarily be free from stereotyped reactions to a Korean-American or Pakistani family? The critiques Kang raises fit more cogently outside the "white privilege" framework. If a newspaper editor in Fresno decides that her publication needs to cover the Hmong immigrant community better, should she send her black, Hispanic, white, and fourth-generation Japanese-American reporters to a training session? Or should she just send the white reporters, because cultural ignorance stems from "white-reporter privilege"? All journalists risk getting any subculture other than their own wrong.

None of this means that the disproportionate whiteness and lack of religious, ideological, and socioeconomic diversity in most American newsrooms isn't a problem that negatively affects the quality of journalistic output. Kang could doubtless produce scores of examples of white reporters getting immigrant communities wrong in broadcast and print media—and that would be a service to journalism. White journalists are far from unique in getting things wrong, but the demographics of journalism make white reporters the most common offenders, if only by virtue of their numbers. And minority communities are least likely to be part of many feedback mechanisms that alert journalists to their mistakes.

I nevertheless find the social-justice indictment of journalism as practiced by Serial and This American Life to be strangely disconnected from the actual role those shows play in U.S. media. Kang notes that he is disturbed by Sarah Koenig "stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them, and subjecting it all to that inimitable This American Life process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found."

Weighing in on the same controversy in a Quartz post that makes a lot of sharp points, Jeff Yang writes, "Ethnic naïveté and cultural clumsiness are hardly unique to Serial. They’re woven into the fabric of its parent show, This American Life, which over its 20-year history has essentially made a cottage industry out of white-privileged cultural tourism." I am sure that in its 20-year history, This American Life has broadcast things that were naive, clumsy, and even downright inaccurate. I'd be curious and gratified to see specific examples that I may have missed. But reflecting generally on "ethnic naïveté" and "cultural clumsiness," is one of America's most carefully reported, scripted, and produced broadcast journalism shows, one where sources often speak in their own voices, really a good example?

The missing context in these brutal but breezy characterizations of This American Life is something like the following. Episode 538 is dedicated to school discipline. Act One is an in-depth analysis of racial disparities in school discipline, told in large part through the first-person account of a black mother who discovers that her pre-schooler is being disciplined differently from his white classmates. Act Two features a teacher reflecting on his days as a student at a charter school for poor minorities and how that affects his approach as a charter-school educator. In Act Three, a reporter spends an entire semester at a charter school of mostly black students and chronicles its approach through their experiences.

Episode 534 details the conflict in a New York school district between Hasidic Jews who've taken over the school board and minority students who've suffered under the budget cuts they imposed. Episode 519 tells the story of Ibragim Todashev, the unarmed man who FBI agents shot and killed during an interrogation in his apartment. Episode 512 illustrates the powerful effects of housing segregation and modern-day housing discrimination through people affected.

In Episode 502, "Ira tells the story of Meron Estefanos, a freelance journalist who in 2011 got a troubling tip: A group of Eritrean hostages was being tortured and held for ransom in the Sinai desert. Along with the tip was a phone number. Meron dialed it, and soon dozens of desperate hostages were begging her for help .... Soon she was talking to the hostages regularly and devoting her life to trying to save them."

Episode 498 includes the story of activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, "who intentionally got arrested for being undocumented. They believed if they could get inside the Broward Transitional Center in Florida, they could prevent lots of the immigrants there from being deported." Listeners hear from several of them.

Episodes 487 and 488 are two exhaustively reported hours on Harper High School in Chicago and how gang violence affects the largely minority students there.

What broadcast journalism show is telling these stories better? How many broadcasters are telling them at all? Are these episodes best characterized as exhaustively reported features told with care and empathy, or as stomping around communities the journalists don't understand? Would journalism or social justice be advanced if This American Life told fewer stories like these to its huge, influential audience—or would it be better if other broadcast journalism more resembled This American Life? What particular mistakes do these episodes make? Are they best noted specifically and constructively, or bundled under the vague label "white-privileged cultural tourism," which many of the subjects would dispute?

From where I sit, there is no question that most American journalism ignores far too many injustices perpetrated against cultural minorities, whether racial, ethnic, or religious. I favor more diversity in the field. I also wish more white journalists—currently the majority of journalists–would pay as much attention to stories of Asian-American women who are murdered as they do to white murder victims. I wish they'd investigate every case where a Muslim American has perhaps been wrongly convicted. I wish that "majority-minority" communities benefited from watchdog journalism as much as whiter areas covered by the same newspapers.

At one point, Kang says that Serial "lacks the hard-earned and moving reflections on race found in ... Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family," which is true. But Random Family is a book that took 10 years to report and was partly a reflection on race. (It is also one of the best works of narrative nonfiction I've ever read.)

Serial is a reflection on a murder case and the criminal-justice system reported over "just" a year, which is to say, it is researched with more effort and depth than 99 percent of journalism produced on any beat in America. "Even the best works of journalism produced by white journalists about minority communities ... have the same problem," Kang writes. "The writer can feel like an interloper, someone who will stay long enough to write a story and then leave." But wouldn't any professional journalist spending a year in Woodlawn, Maryland, investigating a case that the victim's family doesn't want reopened feel like an interloper who'd write the story and leave? After all, that's exactly what they would be.

Nearly all journalists are interlopers by necessity. (So are police detectives and prosecutors and defense attorneys. That's just the job.) When white journalist Radley Balko's reporting helped spring African American Corey Maye from death row, I'm sure Maye didn't mind that Balko didn't stick around Mississippi afterward.

Reporters should be critiqued when they get something wrong about any community they're covering. White reporters covering minority communities should proceed with great care, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity—and scrutiny of their coverage is important. But such critiques shouldn't hinge on whether the journalist "feels like" an interloper, or was disabused of ignorance in the reporting process, or is slightly ambiguous on a peripheral matter that could be interpreted as offensive but, by the critic's own admission, may not have an offensive meaning.

Most of all, the response to mistakes should never be to discourage white reporters from telling important stories. Insufficient coverage can mean that murderers are never found, that civil liberties are violated, that police abuse with impunity, that cities are more corrupt than they might be, that innocent people stay locked in prison for life without parole, that Americans have less empathy for their neighbors. "The staffs of radio stations, newspapers, and magazines tend to be overwhelmingly white, which leaves reporters and writers with a set of equally troubling options," Kang writes. "Either ignore stories from communities of color, or report them in the same sort of shorthand that Koenig uses throughout Serial." To which I can only say:

Those are not equally troubling options!

An exhaustive, year-long inquiry into a possible wrongful conviction is not, by virtue of minor, speculative transgressions of tone and interpretation, troubling in just the same way as not even covering injustice. Whether one is invested in journalism, social justice, or both, minimizing the number of times that people cringe should not be elevated to a primary goal. American history is filled with people interacting across racial, ethnic and religious lines in ways that were fraught, uncomfortable, and highly successful.

There is no other way to live together in a diverse society.

*For the curious, Kang's other example of Serial getting it wrong is no more persuasive. He writes:

In the show’s second episode, Koenig says, “Since [Syed] and Hae both had immigrant parents, they understood the expectations, and the constraints: Do well in school, go to college, take care of your younger brother, and for Adnan, no girls.”

Koenig follows up with this statement from Syed:

“You know, it was really easy to date someone that kind of lived within the same parameters that I did with regards to, you know, she didn’t have the expectation to me coming to her house for dinner with her family, you know, she understood that if she was to call my house and speak to my mother or father, I would get in trouble, and vice versa.”

At first blush, Koenig has done her job as a journalist. She has supported her statement about immigrant parents with a quote from the source. The problem is that Syed never says the word “immigrant.” Instead, he says “parameters,” which is about as neutral and clinical of a word as one could come up with in that situation. It’s possible that there are other parts, not heard, in which Syed explains the point further, but if they exist, they have been excised, meaning that all we’re left with is Koenig’s inference that those “parameters” necessarily mean “immigrant culture.” In a startling omission, the Lee family has not yet appeared in Serial. Without their presence, and Koenig’s insistence on directing the reader towards the typical immigrant family who raised the typical American teenager, the Lees and the Syeds have been rendered as Tiger Parents—overbearing and out-of-touch. The problem isn’t just the leap itself—that we would hear about strict parents and assume they were all similar—but Koenig’s confidence that we will make it with her.

Kang himself has excised some important facts here. Why would we hear about strict parents like Adnan's and Hae's and assume that they were similar? Perhaps because in a passage spoken just before the one that Kang quotes, Adnan tells Koenig, "We had a lot of real similar types of situations with our families." We're making the leap with Adnan, not Koenig, and the leap isn't that all immigrant families are similar, it's that some, e.g. the two in question, are similar in one respect.

Why are Hae's parents absent? As it turns out, Koenig tried as hard as any reporter could, for months, to interview them. For understandable reasons, they're not interested in participating. But what I find most confounding about Kang's characterization is the notion that stereotypes drove the portrayal of the Syeds, when in the same episode Koenig describes and interviews Adnan's mom as follows:

Adnan did most of his lying to his mother. She figured out something was up pretty early on. She found his crown from prom in the basement where he'd tried to stash it along with his tux. Shamim came to the United States in 1976. Her husband was already here working as an engineer for the state of Maryland. She's from Peshawar in Pakistan, where you do not date. You are either married or unmarried. There's not much of a middle ground. So Adnan's girl contact put Shamim in a state of high alert. She would check the mileage on his car to see if he'd driven farther than she said. She eavesdropped when he talked to girls on the phone. I know this makes Shamim sound terrifying. But she's not at all. She adores Adnan, her middle son.

Shamim: "He would talk to the girls, yes. I would pick up the phone and I would—(laughs) he would say mom, I know you are listening to me."

And that conflict must have been constant?

Shamim: "Of course, yeah, because for me this was unacceptable. So we used to argue a lot. I'd say you cannot do that. If you like somebody, all right, you can get married. But not without marriage you cannot. Of course, me and Adnan had a problem."

Adnan's father was a little more loose about it?

Shamim: "Yes. My whole family was. Even my older son, he'd say, 'Mom, everybody's doing it.' Even my husband would say that the boys are doing it, but I'd say, no, not my children."

Adnan wasn't getting punished for this. It wasn't like he was about to get kicked out of the house. It was more like he was about to get reminded of his responsibilities. Both at home and at his mother's request, by his youth leader at the mosque.

Then came the homecoming dance in the fall of senior year. Adnan and Hae had been together for about seven months by then. This dance would become a big deal at trial. Proof of just how fraught their whole relationship was. And how tormented Adnan was about his double life. Here's what happened. Adnan's parents got wind that very night that he had taken Hae to homecoming. Adnan says this kind of thing happens in their community all the time. Someone sees someone's kid at a dance or at the mall and before you can even hide behind a potted plant, four aunties are on the phone to a kid's mother.

Anyway, this time, Adnan's parents did not wait to deal with it at home. They showed up at the dance and chastised him, made a scene. The prosecutors argued that this scene would come to haunt him until the day he killed Hae.

This is not a portrait based on stereotypes of immigrant parents. It is a specific, individualized look at a mother, told partly in her own words, that notes her particular place of origin and its attitudes toward dating. Koenig goes out of her way to mention that the immigrant father had a totally different take on appropriate behavior and was totally in touch with how most American boys were dating, a strange distinction to draw if she's supposed to be stereotyping all immigrants. Adnan's mom is, I suppose, portrayed as overbearing, but not because Koenig thinks all immigrant parents are overbearing—she's portrayed that way because, by her own admission, she eavesdropped on her son's phone calls, directed the family's imam to intercede on behalf of conservative dating norms, and showed up at Adnan's high-school dance to shame him for attending. Is that not overbearing? And these aspects of her parenting are chosen not arbitrarily, but because they're exactly the attributes that are relevant to Adnan's case.

Given the specific "parameters" under which Adnan lived—dating restrictions grounded in the cultural and religious norms found in his mother's country of origin—his comment that Hae lived within "the same parameters" might lead one to suppose that the known strictness of her parents and their known status as immigrants had some connection. Yes, Koenig makes a small leap without explicitly documenting the ground between. The reason to make it with her, rather than treating a minor ambiguity as clear evidence of her "getting it wrong," is that her notion of Hae's "parameters" was not just shaped by one conversation with Adnan.

Kang writes as if everything turned on how Koenig interpreted that word. But she has spoken to Adnan for countless hours. She read Hae's diary, interviewed her teachers, read every word said about her at trial, interviewed her friends and acquaintances. No journalist backs up every assertion with a direct quote to support it. Why is Koenig's failure to do so on a very minor narrative point taken as evidence of cultural ignorance when the depth and effort of her reporting is so obvious? Spending a year on a story, interviewing scores of people, and vetting episodes with veteran colleagues doesn't guarantee against mistakes of the sort Kang discusses, but surely it explains why she'd expect to be spared accusations of getting it wrong where, once again, the critic doesn't know she got it wrong.

He just thinks she might have.