On the Serial finale and journalism as entertainment

There’s a lot of chatter today about the end of Serial, the podcast from This American Life that has followed the story of Adnan Syed, who is in prison after being found guilty for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.


Today’s episode didn’t end the way some people wanted. Adnan is still in prison, and the world is still unsure of his guilt.

Serial ends with lots of open questions; there’s no clear next step, no immediate benefit to Adnan for taking part in the story. Serial may have unpacked his case — his very life — but it didn’t put things back together in a way that has much closure for the audience.

Honestly though, even typing that makes me feel weird. It’s hard to remember it’s all true. Serial plays out like a television crime drama — and entertains like one — but it’s not.

It’s a news story.

It’s well-edited and heavily polished, but under all of it, Serial’s first season was just a news story.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Serial’s narrator and co-creator Sarah Koenig said this, looking forward to today’s finale:

I’ll present what my reporting bears out, and that’s my responsibility. It’s not my responsibility to entertain you with some wonderful, perfect ending. I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way at all—it’s just—I’m a reporter.

On one hand, Koenig was clearly trying to set expectations for rabid fans, but on the other, her point about Serial being a result of reporting is important.

Her work on Serial wasn’t traditional, hardcore journalism. Koenig freely shared her personal opinions and views in every episode, something that isn’t smiled upon those in the industry who believe reporters should be objective, if not clinical, in their writing.

Serial wasn’t created from that school of thought. It’s a blend of entertainment and news reporting. It’s a hybrid of fact and opinion.

That tension is why Serial is so popular, and at the same time, so weird — and, at times, oddly uncomfortable. It’s why the ending — though rooted in reality — is disappointing to so many people.

Serial wasn’t the first piece of work to blend entertainment and reporting, of course, but I do think Serial functions as journalism. Koenig and her team clearly spent lots of time investigating every angle of Adnan’s story, no matter how obscure the detail or difficult to track down.

In many ways, Serial could only exist as a podcast. The episodes give the story a rhythm and give the audience a sense of excitement each week. It’s a great medium for this type of blended reporting.

However, the old-school rules of objective journalism exist for a reason. They protect reporters, subjects and stories from being influenced by emotions. Breaking those rules is fine, as long as expectations are set correctly. The fact that people are upset at Serial’s ending indicates they weren’t.

While I still don’t know what I think about him, I hope Adnan’s case gets back in front of a judge. I hope his story is heard, and that Koenig’s work can help straighten it all out.

Journalists can affect great change, but expecting it to happen in a neat 12-part story with an exciting ending is a little silly.