Best of Slow Journalism: ‘Serial’
We’re huge fans of long-running US radio show This American Life. Since launching in 1995, it’s led the way when it comes to non-fiction (and occasionally fiction) radio storytelling. Some episodes have really inspired the way we approach Slow Journalism. Last year its reporters spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, which resulted in a wonderful and revelatory mini-series on what life is like for teenagers who grow up surrounded by gun violence.
With their new show, the TAL team are going slower and longer – just the way we like it. Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, who last year was alerted to a Maryland murder case from 1999. Over the past few months, she’s tried to make sense of what turns out to be a story as complex and tragic as a Shakespearean tragedy, while investigating compelling claims of wrongful imprisonment.
It’s some achievement to produce factual, objective, in-depth reporting that’s also gripping entertainment. It’s journalism on a very serious subject, but it’s also superb storytelling – there are character developments, plot twists and cliffhangers. It’s a bit like watching the Danish version of The Killing; the drama unfolds slowly with intensity and emotion, and there’s a mystery at its core – was Adnan Syed wrongly sentenced for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee? And if he didn’t kill her, then who did?
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Serial is that Koenig and her team don’t know how or when it will end. They say they’ll keep making episodes until they’ve reached the bottom of the mystery, whenever that may be. And by bringing global attention to a little-known case, and by digging for potentially powerful new evidence, they may even have a major impact on their own story. Adnan Syed, who’s been interviewed extensively for the show, has been in prison for 15 years. Will this series lead to his exoneration? Or will it confirm his guilt?
Or maybe Koenig won’t solve the mystery. Right now, she’s deftly guiding us through the labyrinthine backstory, while being candid about her own doubts and fears as her investigation progresses. There’s also an original score from Nick Thorburn, the Canadian musician behind brilliant bands such as Unicorns and Islands.
Episode three has just been released and the plot is thickening. We can’t wait to see where it takes them, us, and everybody involved.
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