The ethics of Serial and true crime entertainment

Release of Adnan Syed has reignited debate over the role of the genre

Serial host Sarah Koenig
Serial host Sarah Koenig has been criticised in the past
(Image credit: Jessica Rinaldi/Getty Images)

The release from jail this week of Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction 23 years ago gained notoriety via the popular podcast Serial, has reignited the debate over the ethics of true crime entertainment.

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Serial “was the hit podcast that truly kickstarted true crime as an entertainment genre – and altered the course of justice as a direct result”, said Sky News.

There is “no doubt that the attention that ‘Serial’ brought to the case helped Mr. Syed”, agreed America magazine. But the podcast “seems to have little to do with the actual reason for his release”, given that his lawyers spent the last eight years since it first aired “trying unsuccessfully to get Syed a new trial”, it added.

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Syed, now 41, spent 22 years in prison for the murder and kidnapping of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. But his conviction was quashed this week and he was released into home detention. A new trial has been ordered.

So is true crime entertainment a help to the criminal justice system and what are the ethics behind it?

‘A tendency to distort people’s views’

The attention that true crime brings to criminal cases can go some way to finding justice. Australian podcast The Teacher’s Pet prompted a number of clues from listeners who remembered information that was relevant to Sydney teacher Lyn Dawson’s disappearance in 1982.

But one of the issues with true crime series is they concentrate on a small part of the criminal justice system. “They tend to focus on the most exceptional parts of the system and therefore kind of the most spectacular, but because of that often the rarest kind of breakdowns,” John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University, told America.

More broadly, while these shows are educational in nature and bring “more attention to potential injustices”, they also have “a tendency to distort people’s views of crime and justice," Dawn Cecil, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, told AFP.

On top of this, true crime “invites us to speculate, score points and take sides”, says Amelia Tate in The Guardian. It “invites us to be entitled” and attempts to force us to be certain about something rather that admitting “that we are just spectators; that we know very little at all”.

‘Conspicuously well made’

Much of the success of true crime entertainment in recent years is down to the fact that many high-profile series are “conspicuously well made, with lovely visuals and strong reporting”, said Vulture’s Alice Bolin. They have “subtle senses of theme and character, and they often feel professional, pensive, quiet – so far from vulgar or sensational”, she added.

But equally, “behind every gripping case, there is a family who have suffered and don’t want to pick over the horrific details, no matter how sensitively they’re treated”, said Hannah Verdier in The Guardian. The family of Hae Min Lee, who Syed was convicted of murdering, “has regularly said they are unable to move on because of all the attention on her case”, reported AFP.

“This is not a podcast for me. It’s real life,” Lee’s brother Young Lee said through tears in a statement to the court this week. “It’s a nightmare.”

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