Release of Adnan Syed reignites questions regarding the ethics of true crime – The Elm

Release of Adnan Syed reignites questions regarding the ethics of true crime – The Elm


By Piper Sartison

Elm Staff Writer

In 2000, Baltimore native Adnan Syed was sentenced to life in prison after accusations of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

On Sept. 19, 2022, Syed was released from prison following the vacation of his murder conviction.

The overturning of the sentence is due in part to the coverage of Syed’s story on “Serial.”

Considered one of earliest true crime podcasts, “Serial”  follows Syed’s case, unearthing new details about Hae Min Lee’s death.

Throughout the thirteen episodes of the first season, “Serial” host Sarah Koenig gathers recordings from sources connected to Syed and Lee. The recordings, which are guided by a timeline, form a narrative that allows the audience to develop their own opinions on the case.

In episode 13 of “Serial,” released a day after the vacation of Syed’s conviction, Koenig said, “The bulk of the State’s motion to vacate was caused by new information about two potential suspects, important evidence withheld from the defense, renewed suspicion of Jay’s story, and loss of confidence in cell phone evidence.”

Through its ground-breaking reporting, “Serial” set the gold standard for subsequent true crime media. According to Vulture, the podcast is a “holy grail” of investigative journalism.

However, true crime culture frequently sparks controversy regarding ethics.

According to an article published by Vulture, “For these so-called prestige true-crime offerings, the question of ethics — of the potential to interfere in real criminal cases and real people’s lives — is even more important, precisely because they are taken seriously.”

“It is easier than ever for producers to create stories that look good and seem serious, especially because there are templates now for a style and voice that make horrifying stories go down easy and leave the viewer wanting more,” Vulture critic Alice Bolin said.

Many pieces of media about true crime are criticized for not directing attention or sympathy toward the victim. Some say that instead, writers focus on the gruesome details behind the tragedy.

According to Medium, true crime “can exploit victims and families while creators make money from violent stories.”

In some cases, producers only show one side of the story, as they believe that a certain side will be the most entertaining and will in turn, produce the most money. This mindset leads to bias, further contributing to a cycle that harms those impacted by the crime.

While Koenig followed a timeline and included varying perspectives on what might have happened to Lee, some argue that she did not to provide further details on the case.

According to an article published by The Week, “While these shows are educational in nature and bring more attention to potential, 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, said.

While audiences love to act as detectives, the discourse surrounding the genre’s ethics is likely to continue as true crime’s grip on media continues to expand.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo caption: Launched by the creators of public radio show “This American Life,” “Serial” is considered one of the first true crime podcasts. In 2015, the first season won a Peabody Award for long-form non-fiction storytelling.


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