Privilege and the Serial Podcast

(Rambling, Mucinex-induced, non-edited post ahead. Let’s hear it for germs!)

Like any good NPR-listening, white, liberal gal who lives in the Boston suburbs, I recently started listening to the true-crime podcast Serial. Sarah Koenig – who we’ve heard before on This American Life – is tackling one story all season long to figure out who’s telling the truth, and asking if the police, the lawyers, and the courts got it right.

There is so much about this story that’s compelling and interesting. Kids of immigrant parents, Baltimore in the late 1990s, high school romances, ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, shady and cryptic characters, seemingly inept police and lawyers… I could go on and on…

But the thing that I can’t get out of my head, that has been bothering me SO MUCH about this, is that it seems that Koenig has gone about investigating this story without getting permission from the victim’s family to do so. In fact, in the episode released last week, Koenig goes on at some length about the efforts to which she went to try to get input from the victim’s family.

And let me tell you: those 30 seconds of the podcast were downright chilling. It starts about 35 minutes into this episode, and goes like this:

For many, many months, we tried to contact Hae’s family, to tell them we were doing this story and in hopes they might want to talk to us about Hae. In my twenty-plus years of reporting, I’ve never tried as hard to find anyone. Letters in English and Korean, phone calls, social media, friends of friends of friends, two private detectives, Korean-speaking researchers, people knocking on doors in three different states, calls to South Korea. We never heard back from them.

Do you know what that is in most places? Stalking. If anyone other than a white, female, journalist affiliated with NPR had admitted publicly to using all these methods of trying to get in touch with a family – WITH NO RESPONSE WHATSOEVER – the “creepy” detectors would be pinging wildly. But Koenig rests on her privilege in this case – the privilege of being white, being affiliated with This American Life, the privilege of being female – to try to get in touch with the family of the very person who has made this podcast possible. And it’s clear that they do. not. want. to. talk. to. her.

And oh my god, she continues doing the story anyway. Without permission from the family of the deceased victim. How disgusting is that?

I’ve been very disheartened through the episodes I’ve listened to so far that the victim of this crime has been so absent in everything we hear. We know all about two of the (still-living) men involved in this case in great detail, but the victim? The woman who was killed? Has had almost NO VOICE in any episode of this show (with the exception of Koenig reading excerpts from her diary, for god’s sake), and it’s disgusting and I’m so sad about it.

Apparently I’m not the only one who’s having problems with this particular podcast – a web search for “serial podcast ethics” brings back a whole host of similarly (and more nuanced) criticisms.

I’m very conflicted about whether to continue listening to the podcast. I would like very much for the season to be wrapped up with an “ah-ha! So-and-so was REALLY the killer!” moment, with justice served for the victim and her family. And yet I don’t think that’s likely to happen quite so neatly, and truth be told, I really don’t want Koenig to get any credit for doing that because I’m so grossed out by how she’s treating the victim and victim’s family.

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