The CSI Effect is the term used to describe the effect TV shows have on real life forensic work.
The CSI effect (or CSI syndrome) refers to several ways in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation affects the public perception of forensic evidence, particularly within the United States. While the effect has not been proven, it is widely believed to be responsible for increased expectations of forensic evidence from jury members. The CSI effect may also affect the extent to which criminals attempt to conceal or destroy evidence of their crimes.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the television program for which the CSI effect is named, first aired in 2000. The show quickly became popular, resulting in two spin-offs: CSI: Miami, which launched in 2003, and CSI: NY in 2004. Other crime shows which have been associated with the CSI effect include Bones, Cold Case, Cold Case Files, Criminal Minds, Crossing Jordan, Forensic Files, NCIS, and Without a Trace. By 2005, six of the top ten most popular television shows were crime dramas, and in November 2007,CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had reached the number one ranking.
Anthony E. Zuiker, creator of the CSI franchise, claimed that “all of the science [on the show] is accurate”. Researchers, on the other hand, have described the show’s portrayal of forensic science as “high-tech magic”. Forensic scientist Thomas Mauriello estimated that 40% of the scientific techniques depicted on CSI do not exist. The notion that forensics shows affected criminal behavior and the public perception of forensic evidence was dubbed the CSI effect, a term that began to appear throughout mainstream media as early as 2005.
Although the CSI effect is a recent phenomenon, it has long been recognized that media portrayals of the United States legal system are capable of significantly altering the public awareness, knowledge, and opinions of the system. A 2002 juror survey showed that the popular court show Judge Judy greatly misinformed its viewers as to the purpose of the judge within a courtroom. Earlier programs which may have also affected the public perception of the legal system include Perry Mason (1957–1966) and Quincy, M.E. (1976–1983).
The CSI effect purports that, due to the popularity of forensic crime shows on television, many jury members enter trials with misconceptions about the nature of forensic science and investigation procedures. There are two main hypotheses for how this affects jury verdicts: the first is that the CSI effect causes jury members to expect more forensic evidence than is available or necessary, resulting in a higher rate of acquittal. The other is that the CSI effect gives jury members greater confidence in forensic evidence than is warranted, resulting in a higher rate of conviction. While these and other effects may be caused by crime shows, the effect that is most commonly reported is that jurors are wrongly acquitting defendants despite overwhelming evidence of guilt. In particular, prosecutors have reported feeling pressured to provide DNA evidence even when eyewitness testimony is available. The most publicized example of this came when actor Robert Blake, on trial for murder, was acquitted despite two witness accounts.Robert Cooley, the prosecuting attorney, blamed the acquittal on the CSI effect and claimed that the jury members were “incredibly stupid.”
By 2006, the notion that the CSI effect had become widely accepted as reality despite the fact that there had not yet been any empirical research to validate or disprove it. These beliefs persisted even after studies were published that showed no correlation between acquittal rates and crime shows; a 2008 survey showed that roughly 80% of all American legal professionals believed they had had decisions affected by forensic television programs.
The first empirical study of the CSI effect was undertaken in 2006 by Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton and two researchers from Eastern Michigan University. The study, which surveyed more than 1,000 jurors, found that while juror expectations for forensic evidence had increased, there was no correlation between viewership of crime shows and tendency to convict. One alternate explanation for the changing perception of forensic evidence is what Shelton refers to as the “tech effect”: as technology improves and becomes more prevalent throughout society, people develop higher expectations for the capabilities of forensic technology. Shelton described one instance in which a jury member complained because the prosecution had not dustedthe lawn for fingerprints, a procedure which, besides being impossible, has not been demonstrated on any crime show.
The CSI effect may be altering how crimes are committed. In 2000, the year that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation made its television debut, 46.9% of all rape cases in the United States were solved by police investigators. By 2005, the solve rate had fallen to 41.3%. Some investigators attributed this decline to the CSI effect, as crime shows often explain in detail how criminals can conceal or destroy evidence of their crimes. Rape victims claimed to have been forced to shower or clean themselves with bleach after the assault. In December 2005, Jermaine McKinney broke into a home in Trumbull County, Ohio, where he murdered two women. McKinney, who was known to be a fan of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, went to unusual lengths to remove evidence of the crime: he cleaned his hands with bleach, burned the bodies and his clothing, and attempted to dispose of the murder weapon in a lake. Ray Peavy, head of the Los Angeles County homicide division, commented that, in addition to teaching criminals how to conceal evidence, crime shows may even “encourage them when they see how simple it is to get away with on television.”
Others argue that shows like CSI aren’t having any affect on criminals. Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, pointed out that while it is possible that the CSI effect may be educating criminals, people who resort to a life of crime generally aren’t very intelligent to begin with. Tammy Klein, the lead investigator on the McKinney case, said that the killings she investigates are committed by people “who for the most part are pretty stupid.” Larry Pozner, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that because people who commit violent crimes generally don’t take precautions, television forensics programs are unlikely to have any effect on their behavior.
The manner in which forensic scientists are trained has also been influenced by the CSI effect. In the past, those who sought to enter the field of forensics typically earned an undergraduate degree in a general science area followed by a Master’s degree. However, the popularity of television programs such as CSI has caused an increase in the demand for undergraduate courses and graduate programs in forensic science. The forensics programs at Florida International University and University of California Davis were reported to have doubled in size as a result of the CSI effect, though many of these students enter the programs with unrealistic expectations of the nature of forensic science.
Crime labs have benefited from an increase in the number of qualified applicants as a result of the increased popularity of forensics programs. However, these programs have been criticized for not adequately preparing students for real forensics work, as graduates often lack a firm grasp of basic scientific principles that would come from a science degree.
Although forensic crime shows are often criticized for portraying technologies that do not exist, it is possible that these shows may inspire inventors and research teams to make the technologies available in the future, as it is not uncommon for scientific innovations to be first portrayed in science fiction. Also, the increased public awareness of forensic science can stimulate new interest in solving cold cases and encourage higher accountability amongst police investigators. However, the increased demand for forensic evidence can cause an unmanageable workload for forensic laboratories.
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Source: Forensic Science Degree