I have two loves — Forensic Files and podcasts.
Forensic Files is a non-fiction true crime TV show. It takes a “whodunit” approach to the cases it covers, so it starts with a victim and ends with a murderer. Of course, this means you spend most of the half hour coming up with your own theories as the show slowly drops more details. It’s addictive as hell, which is why I’ve seen every episode at least twice. The show is less about the gruesome and often salacious details of the murders than about the forensic science that led investigators to solve them. Everything I know about biology — which I’ll admit is not much — I’ve learned from Forensic Files. It’s the pinnacle of edutainment.
There’s a reason I didn’t say I love true crime and podcasting, and that’s because I feel like the former is taking over the latter in an unhealthy way. Forensic Files hooks you with the creep and horror factor that comes with any murder, crime, or even disease. Ultimately, though, it ends by telling you why you’re hearing about it — advances in the natural, computer, and social sciences helped investigators solve cases. In other words, it’s not just indulging peoples’ murder and mystery guilty pleasures.
Podcasting is in the middle of a true crime boom. I just checked the iTunes podcasts charts, and of the top 40 podcasts, 11 are entirely about or at least mostly about murder. Of all the topics in life, life’s cessation by another person is absolutely dominating this medium. Why?
We love mystery — we love knowing some of the details of an event, especially a shocking event, but not all. That way, everyone can come up with their own theory on any given case. It’s great for conversation. A lot’s been said about our supposed love of violence, but I think this is less of a factor in our true crime addiction than the mystery. But there’s something about what’s going on here that I find troubling.
The podcast Serial started this boom. Heck, it may even be what brought podcasting into the mainstream. It’s extraordinarily well done — which you’d expect because it’s produced by public radio professionals. I can’t blame the show too much, because I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would kick start this whole obsession the way it did, but I think it’s representative of what’s gone wrong. Bear with me as I explain why.
*MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SERIAL SEASON 1 BELOW*
The first season is about the case of Adnan Syed. In 2000, 18 year-old Syed was tried and convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Syed was the top suspect when Lee’s strangled body was found in a park near their school in Greater Baltimore. He had gone through a rough breakup with her, wrote in a notebook about his need to kill, and cell phone records placed him near the location of her body on the day she went missing. So, already, things are not looking good for him. But on top of all this, an acquaintance of Syed’s, Jay, admits to having helped him bury the body. It’s clear Jay is telling the truth at least to some degree, because he has information about the crime, such as the location of the victim’s car, that investigators didn’t know until he talked to them. There’s little to no forensic evidence, which is probably why this murder didn’t end up on Forensic Files.
Sarah Koenig, a seasoned reporter and radio producer, narrates Serial. She is a master of storytelling. She’s a big reason it works as well as it does. Koenig readily admits that a lot of things are going against Syed, but she prods at the sketchy aspects of the case — Jay’s story keeps changing, prosecutors made a shady deal with him to get him legal representation, and one of Syed’s classmates says she has an alibi for him. What’s more, Syed’s lawyer, possibly the best in Greater Baltimore, is starting to get deathly ill at the time of the trial. Her tactics throughout it can only be described as bizarre. I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that Syed didn’t get effective legal representation, and that’s not a minor injustice. So good for Serial there.
While each of these subjects gets its own episode, Koenig brings up one supposed defense of Syed throughout them — that he just doesn’t “seem” like a murderer. She says this on the basis of her own conversations with him, many of which are included in Serial. I immediately bookmarked this argument as dubious. Sure, he doesn’t seem like a murderer, but he doesn’t seem like *not* a murderer either. You can imagine my relief when Koenig speaks to an expert late in the season who tells her that this sort of “murderer detector” thing we all think we have going on doesn’t really exist. In spite of what Hollywood would have you believe, many killers aren’t obviously sociopathic criminal masterminds like Heath Ledger’s Joker. In many cases they’re just people. It’s the banality of evil factor
Still, I was enthralled by the case and the podcast, and it’s clear millions of others were and still are. About a year or so after listening I decided to listen again, but this time I was more annoyed with Serial‘s methods than enraptured. Koenig concludes by not taking a specific stance, but says she leans towards Syed not being guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I can understand that view, but the whole thing left me wondering whether a lot of what the producers presented was actually as vindicating of Syed as they perhaps initially thought it was. Serial wasn’t without collateral damage, to put it lightly. Many attached to the case, in particular Hae Min Lee’s family, have had to relive the pain and horror of it all. Family members have been clear that they believe justice was done when Syed was convicted and jailed.
I write all of this because, in spite of its flaws, Serial is still the best case of a true crime season of a podcast delivering on its initial promises. It exposes some real troubling problems of criminal justice to a broad audience. It asks big, important questions. I even feel, cliché warning, that it taught me something about what it means to be human. So at best I’d say I have a love-hate relationship with Serial Season 1.
Serial has conjured an absolute tsunami of podcasts trying to pick up on its success. The problem is too many feel like they’re missing all the elements that make programs like Serial and Forensic Files meaningful. On top of that, a lot of them make incredibly ambitious commitments to finding out things about the case that police didn’t already know. It always seems kind of defensive — we’re not just giving you true crime because true crime is your guilty pleasure, we’re doing it because we have an ethical imperative to be on this case. I’m never surprised when, many episodes later, the host or hosts admit they haven’t discovered much if anything investigators weren’t already aware of. This is when they usually say something along the lines of, “Well, at least we educated you about the crime.” It feels kind of empty.
Of course, there’s a second genus of true crime podcast which is unabashedly all about “educating” listeners about particular crimes. I’ll confess that I don’t really know what the value of this is. I’d like to think that, having watched as many episodes of Forensic Files as I have, I would have stopped after a few if I didn’t feel like I was learning anything beyond the particular details of the crimes themselves. Many of these podcasts focus on cases where the murderer or terrorist or bad guy is already known, but don’t really take things beyond the crime itself.
It’s all the more troubling because, as is apparent in the past few years, there are at least a few people in our world who do not make a distinction between fame and notoriety. Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings is getting better in not giving the killer what they want, but I feel like media coverage a few months or years after the fact is getting worse.
I can’t question whether true crime is as close to a guaranteed slam dunk in podcasting as it gets, because it is. What I can and will question is whether it should be. So, to start, I’m going to unsubscribe from it.