Sarah Koenig is too emotional. Sarah Koenig is in love with Adnan Syed. Sarah Koenig clearly can't be taken seriously as a reporter.
The This American Life spinoff podcast Serial has gained a cult following. It's hosted by producer Sarah Koenig and follows the 1999 Maryland murder of Hae Min Lee and the trial of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who is currently serving a life sentence for her murder. There was no physical evidence and much of the testimony used to convict him was questionable at best. The podcast has become a sensation, inspiring meta-podcasts and a legion of listeners who are attempting to discover the truth alongside Koenig.
I'm one of those obsessed Serial listeners. Consider this a formal apology to my professors--I spend 50 percent of class time surreptitiously reading the subreddit for the podcast. And as I read, one kind of comment started popping up again and again: "can we trust SK?" "Is SK in love with Adnan?" "Did you hear how she giggled?"
It wasn't until I started listening to Serial that I realized how few popular podcasts are hosted by women. Listen, I love RadioLab, This American Life and HowStuffWorks as much as the next student, but hearing a woman's voice on a podcast is so rare, and it's no wonder when you consider that we live in a world where feminine-sounding voices are devalued.
NPR did a story on this issue recently. They point out that women with higher voices are perceived as incompetent and unreliable. So it's not just Koenig -- all women are judged based on their vocal intonation. When listeners criticize the way Koenig laughs or her tone when she asks questions, they're not just criticizing her voice, they're attacking her credibility. And when the medium in question is aural, a podcast, perceptions of voice really matter. Which is why it's so frustrating to see listeners project these ideas onto Koenig's incredible reporting.
The criticism that bothers me the most, though, is the implication that Koenig is in love with Adnan Syed. Listeners point to a moment early in the show when Koenig says that he doesn't look like a murderer. But what many don't note is that she immediately calls herself out, acknowledging that a murderer could easily have warm brown eyes. She's not falling in love, she's helping the listener create a mental image of the show's main subject. They point out that she's friendly with Adnan, sometimes laughing at his jokes. She has over 30 hours worth of interviews with him -- of course they're friendly. It's also her prerogative to be amiable with her main subject. If their relationship becomes cold or accusatory then she loses her main source. The assertion that she is in love with Adnan is insulting and clearly sexist. When was the last time someone accused Ira Glass of being in love with one of his subjects?
When listeners accuse Koenig of being "too emotional," they're continuing the tradition of devaluing emotion. Emotional reactions are just as valid as intellectual ones. And most of Koenig's reactions are intellectual. But it's a mistake to argue that she's not a credible journalist because she does occasionally express emotion. It's an emotional case which involves real people. As I write, Adnan Syed is in prison in Maryland. Many people are working to free him. Lee's friends and family are still mourning her. So I don't want to listen to a "Serial" that is bereft of emotion because that would mean detaching from the real trauma that impacted so many in Baltimore and beyond.
What's so wrong with being emotional anyway? Critics of Koenig's reporting should remember that emotion and reason are not mutually exclusive. Sarah Koenig does occasionally laugh or sigh with frustration. And these human moments make Serial great.