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'Serial' study finds online forums break barriers between fans and victims

'Serial' study finds online forums break barriers between fans and victims
A 1998 photo of Adnan Syed, subject of the podcast “Serial.” He is serving a life sentence plus 30 years after being convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago. ('Serial', Handout)

Online forums are breaking down barriers between people affected by murders and those interested in the cases, criminologists at Birmingham City University in the U.K. found after examining impacts of the popular podcast "Serial."

Their study, published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Victims & Offenders, looked at interactions on Reddit between friends and family members impacted by the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and fans of the podcast that examined her killing.

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Lee's case was the subject of the first season of "Serial," a viral podcast by This American Life prooducer and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig. The series, which launched a second season Thursday, dug into the conviction of Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence for her murder but maintains his innocence.

" 'Serial' is unique in that it vastly differs from the mediated representations of homicide that we all typically encounter, primarily in the news or in dramas," Dr. Elizabeth Yardley, director of Birmingham City University's Centre for Applied Criminology, said in a statement. "The parallel 'fan culture' that emerged around it was also fascinating as enthusiasts set up their own podcasts to analyze 'Serial' and began discussing and investigating the case alone and in groups."

Yardley led the study, which found that forums like Reddit allow people affected by murders to express alternative narratives to those in court documents or media content. Their firsthand experiences, in turn, fuel more interest in the case.

In the case of "Serial," both Tanveer Syed, Adnan's older brother, and Hae's younger brother, Young Lee, interacted with fans on Reddit.

But the study also concluded there needs to be a balance between providing a platform for secondary victims like Syed and Lee to be heard, while also protecting them, particularly when fans post and repost material like crime scene photos.

"New technologies have blurred the lines between consumers and producers, writers and readers, crime fact and crime fiction, online and offline, and victims and perpetrators," Yardley said in a statement.

Season 2 of the popular podcast launched early Thursday. The new series focuses on the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier captured by the Taliban in 2009.

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