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How True Crime Podcasts Like 'Serial' Affected Justice System

In 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood created the true crime genre. Nearly 50 years later, radio journalist Sarah Koenig decided the case of a Baltimore high school student, Adnan Syed, convicted of murdering his teenage ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, needed a second look

With its high production values, conversational style, and a storyline unfolding in real time, 2014’s Serial fueled a new wave of interest in true crime and transformed podcasting. Its first season, it was once the most downloaded podcast in the world at 300 million, a number that now feels almost quaint thanks to the influence Serial has had on the medium, Vox reports.

Serial’s most consequential effect was on the criminal justice system itself, says Vox.

Before the series, the main way people received pop culture narratives about crime came through police procedurals like Law & Order and high-profile investigations like that of O.J. Simpson or JonBenét Ramsey, where the media circus often overshadowed the facts.

Serial changed that by ushering in an age of increased scrutiny over the narratives we’re fed about policing and by making millions of listeners more aware of the limits and flaws of the justice system. From that awareness has come serious action that arguably helped free Serial’s own subject.

True crime podcasts “have offered a critical lens through which to scrutinize the procedures and decision-making in the criminal justice system,” says Kent Bausman, a criminologist and sociology professor at Maryville University. “They have enlightened the public consciousness about the convoluted machinations of the system and revealed with great clarity the human experience of miscarriages of justice.”

Journalist-led true crime podcasts have also had a direct impact on the cases they’ve investigated — like In the Dark, which helped free its season two subject, Curtis Flowers, from death row in 2019. In 2022, the runaway hit Murdaugh Murders helped catalyze the re-investigation of the death

It was a dogged pursuit of local criminal justice reform that allowed Syed to walk free, though the flashier “whodunit” aspects of his case that initially attracted Koenig also delivered a twist. Syed’s case review uncovered new evidence, including two new suspects, that cast reasonable doubt on his trial and conviction.

Prosecutors dropped all charges against Syed but later walked this back on a technicality. Those nuances also reflect a post-Serial shift in public advocacy and focus: on the rights of victims and their families in cases like this one. Although his case is still in limbo, Syed remains out of jail.


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