Sarah Koenig’s “Serial” Bias

*In this blog I quote the full transcript from the podcast for ease of use. I’ve linked it below.

When I first listened to Episode 1 of the serial podcast, I unquestioningly took the perspective of the podcast. This was logical I suppose, as I hadn’t read any other information or even heard of the Adnan Syed case until then. But as I dug deeper and did more research, it became much clearer what was going on behind the scenes. A fundamental issue was revealed for me: Sarah Koenig wasn’t looking for the truth, she was looking for view and donwload numbers.

Sarah Koenig and her producer in their studio (link)

During my listening of the first episode of Serial, I took everything said at face value. I’ve got to give Koenig credit: she has a great podcasting voice, and a solid dialogue projecting confidence and trustworthiness. It can be very easy to see this this podcast as a search for the truth, rather than what it really is: an entertainment vehicle. The crucial thing to understand is that there was NO way that Sarah would have concluded the podcast with Adnan’s guilt. Think about it: If she had concluded that he was guilty and went on for 12 episodes, the show wouldn’t have gotten any traction. People want to hear a redemption story, a story that gives them hope, a story of a man who overcomes a biased legal system against all odds. This is the fundamental reality of the podcast: Sarah Koenig had every financial and personal incentive to have Adnan be innocent.

Adnan Syed in 2019 (Link)

After listening for the first time, Sarah Koenig’s bias on Adnan’s innocence is blatanly obvious. Here are a few examples:

Sarah quotes Asia’s affidavit that says that Asia and her boyfriend left at 2:40 pm, but omits the section in Asia’s letter that said “I can count for your unwitnessed time between 2:15 and 8pm,” which is a clear contradiction as she could not have seen him from 3:00 until 8:00 if she left at 2:40 (Sarah Koenig 22). What’s interesting is that there is no mention of this contradiction in the podcast. The letter is displayed below.

Asia’s Letter to Adnan, March 2, 1999 (link)

Sarah Koenig quotes one of Adnan’s friends when he learns that Hae got a new boyfriend, saying “Adnan’s friend Mac Francis said Adnan initially was devastated and jealous about the new boyfriend. Said he grumbled about it in a typical guy way, nothing strange” (45). What she fails to mention is that Hae’s death actually occured only a few days after Adnan learns about her boyfriend, which gives him quite a bit more motive than Koenig makes it seem.

I think this is enough evidence of Sarah Koenig’s bias to show that her podcast is at best unreliable, and at worst disingenuous, not to mention the financial bias at play. Techcrunch.com reported that Serial was sold to the New York Times for an estimated $25 million. Taking this into account, I believe that

The first two seasons of “Serial” have been downloaded more than 340 million times. (link)

To be clear, I am not criticizing the artistic merit of the podcast, I thought it was very well produced. My issue with this podcast is they built a story around real events and twisted facts so they would fit the narrative. It’s very easy forget that the podcast is actually based on real people. I found one particular post from r/serialpodcast, a forum dedicated to discussion of the podcast, very moving. Here’s an excerpt from the post, by redditor u/zoooty:

“Via an interpreter at sentencing, Hae’s mom addressed the Court and said:

‘How are you? I’m the mother of Have Min Lee. In Korean proverb there is a saying that parents die, they bury in the ground, but when children die, they bury in their hearts. I heard of those proverbs, but I never realized it was so difficult for me, and my family. It’s truly the most excruciating period in my life. Our daughter, my daughter, our daughter was so precious to us and everybody surrounding us. My daughter never give us any problem whatsoever and always solved any kind of difficult problem on her own usually, and has always been a good daughter.She never, always did well at school and always sis well at home and also she always said, I love you, Mother, and several times, always repeating, that she always showed love and affection in the family, and always cared about everything in her life and in her family, and solved all the problems very well.'”

This excerpt made me wonder whether it was even ethical for Sarah Koenig to create the podcast in the first place. Just imagine an immense tragedy occurs in your family, and then it’s made public to tens of millions of strangers. Sadly, the podcast gives very little attention to the suffering of Hae’s family, which I think is a tragedy.

Youn Kim, right, mother of Hae Min Lee, is escorted from her daughter’s Memorial Service. (Link)

There are serious problems with this kind of work. Sure, the narrative was brilliant from a story-telling perspective, but portraying a piece of entertainment as some kind of investigation (In the podcast description, Sarah says she “looks for answers”) is extremely misleading, having taken her biases into account. Stories like that of Hae Min Lee are not meant for this kind of narrativization and mass publication (Koenig). In the end, Adnan Syed’s retrial was denied, his guilt was confirmed, and Hae’s family received no compensation for their grief. I hope the next time someone creates a “truecrime” podcast, they do it in a way that protects the victim’s identity and their family.

Works Cited

Heater, Brian. “The New York Times Is Buying the Production Studio behind ‘Serial’ for $25M.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 23 July 2020, techcrunch.com/2020/07/23/the-new-york-times-is-buying-the-production-studio-behind-serial-for-25m/. 

Koenig, Sarah. “Season One.” Serial Podcast, serialpodcast.org/season-one. 

“Man Bites Dog.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 May 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_bites_dog. 

Sarah Koenig. “Complete Transcripts for Serial Podcast Season One.” Adnansyedwiki.com, http://www.adnansyedwiki.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Serial-Podcast-Transcripts-of-All-Episodes-with-ToC.pdf. 

u/zoooty. “r/Serialpodcast – The Reality of a Stupid, Impulsive, Teenage Decision.” Reddit, 8 July 2021, http://www.reddit.com/r/serialpodcast/comments/ofxz76/the_reality_of_a_stupid_impulsive_teenage_decision/. 

One thought on “Sarah Koenig’s “Serial” Bias”

  1. You made VERY good points aiding your point of Sarah chasing the view and download numbers Rami! You actually did kind of change my mind and the way I look at Sarah Koeing, but I was wondering if what you are saying is the case, why were there some situations during the podcast that let you think for your own? Were those times for us to think under the pressure of Sarah making Adnan look innocent? So it makes us seem like we are thinking for ourselves but in reality, we are manipulated by her?

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