Serial: Sarah Koenig vs Adnan Syed

Metanarrative Project

Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed have a very peculiar relationship. The pair doesn’t have a friendship or function as colleagues, it’s a relationship of narrator and subject matter. This distinction is important due to the constant stress that Koenig puts on her goal not to hold bias in Syed’s case. This, of course, is incredibly difficult to do in Koenig’s case. Despite her best efforts, she becomes passionate about the people, not just the story.

But what makes Serial meta? Obviously, the podcast isn’t a fictional piece. Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig are real people. Hae Min Lee actually died and there is not a shred of physical proof as to who murdered her all those years ago. Syed was sentenced to a lifetime in prison at 17-years-old. While the other two stories that I am covering in my analysis are fictional works and they have a multitude of frames that cover the fictional realm of possibilities; Serial’s narrative stems from layers of perspectives and media outlets.  

Think about it this way: we have the story as told by Adnan which is then told by Sarah Koenig through her interview. She is relaying Adnan’s story and her investigation–with her bias (whether she claims to be or not) and editing– through a podcast that has mood influencing music and sound cues.


So back to my original question, if there is conflict or interaction between the narrator and the subject of the story, how does that affect the meaning of the story? In this case, I think that it’s important to acknowledge’s Koenig’s original quest. Was it to find the truth of the case and either prove or disprove Syed’s innocence? Or, was it meant to bring to light the failings of our justice system?

The story was brought to Koenig’s attention when Rabia Chaudry approached her in concern for the rightful imprisonment of Syed in 2014. Koenig picked up the case right away and made it

Sarah Koenig and the other producers on Serial

her mission to report the story. What she found was shocking, and it caught the world’s attention.

Koenig set up the story as a podcast with phone interviews with Syed and other people associated with the case. In a 2014 interview with Nieman Storyboard, Louise Kiernan asked the producers of Serial about the structuring of the podcast. It turns out that they mapped the possible results of the series in advance, and then realized very quickly that the plan was moot. Sarah explained that they have “always known we don’t know exactly how it’s going to end, but assuming it’s going to go the way we think it’s going to go, here’s what we’ll do. And then, when we realize maybe it’s not going the way we think it’s going to go, let’s take it apart and start again.” The framework of the narrative had to be flexible in order to meet the needs of the investigative nature of the podcast. So not only did the project start with multiple layers, the layers changed with each piece of the puzzle falling in to place.

So, it seems as though the original goal of the podcast was indeed to draw attention to the case and those like it, however, it clear that the purpose evolved to include an accurate verdict for Syed; complete with a team of outside attorneys searching the case for concrete evidence against Adnan. In George Amoss jr’s analysis of metanarrative Three Aspects of Metanarrative, he mentions the culture metanarratives  “a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience’ and self-metanarratives “the normally-invisible, intuitive internal structure or orientation that shapes our thinking, feeling, and being in the world.” I think that Serial takes on both aspects of metanarrative in order to establish meaning in the podcast beyond the innocence or guiltiness of a high school student. In the framework of the story, the truth never mattered. It was all a plea for the justice system to be reevaluated to consider cases like Adnan’s. The positive that came out of that meaning is that the truth is struggling to come out but it’s getting closer. So, in the case of Serial, the truth is sought because of a search for meaning.

I found an article in the Chicago Tribune that discusses Serial’s impact on Adnan’s case and it gives a clear picture of the results of the podcast. You can find it here!


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