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The “CSI Effect” - Misconceptions of the Truth

Updated on February 23, 2012

Without a doubt crime is hot. In a given week a person can watch up to 10 different “Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)” related shows all hoping to cash in on our obsession with the dark and macabre. Television channels entice us with slogans like “All Crime all The Time” and “Murder Marathon”. You would be hard pressed to find an adult in the United States who had never seen an episode of CSI or a program similar to it such as NCIS, Criminal Minds or Bones, or at the very least heard of it. In the week of June 13, 2011 alone, four of the top ten broadcast television shows were crime dramas, with more than an estimated 32,000 viewers all together. And if we could track down someone who had been living under a rock for the past decade I’m sure that words like “DNA” and “Fingerprint Analysis” would not be foreign to them either. Jurors in the States as well as jurors in developed democracies around the world are more informed and aware of the workings of crime investigations and court cases than ever before, or at least they think they are, thanks to programs such as Law and Order and CSI. This knowledge is leading to a phenomenon being called the “CSI Effect.”

For years judges, and lawyers have believed that what people see on the television is effecting the outcome of court cases. Crime shows have about forty to fifty minutes, after subtracting the commercials, to introduce the audience to a crime, find evidence, interview a suspect or two, and put the criminal behind bars. With a timeline so incredibly condensed the magic of hollywood is put to use. It takes 30 seconds to run a set of fingerprints through IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System), FBI’s fingerprint database which contains more than 65 million prints of know criminals and 25 million of those of civilians. DNA is always a match and the results can be gained within ten minutes. In reality DNA is a very tricky thing. Human DNA only varies from person to person about .01% therefore there is only a small percentage that is used to identify a unique individual. Because of the difficult nature of DNA it can take six months to a year in order get results depending on the priority of the case, not ten minutes. Another aspect of the publics over expectations of forensic science is facial reconstruction. In many crime dramas art or technology is used to uncover what a person looked like; most often a show will have an artist use clay to mold a face over the skull. Then there is “technology” like the Angiletron on the hit TV show Bones which can give us a face with the click of a button. Forensic artists do exist and we do have the information to reconstruct a face using clay but the Angiletron is simply a fictional machine used by Bones producer Hart Hanson to catch our interest and gain high ratings. In reality every crime lab in the country doesn’t employ a forensic artist though, in fact there are only a small handful nation wide.

Many journalists, judges and attorneys claim that crime dramas have caused jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants because they were not satisfied with the evidence presented. The Honorable Donald E. Shelton wasn’t sure if this was actually the case or not because up until his study in 2006 all of the evidence of the CSI Effect had been circumstantial and anecdotal. Judge Shelton “once heard a juror complain that the prosecution had not done a thorough job because ‘they didn’t even dust the lawn for fingerprints.’” In a US study surveying prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges four-fifths of them could recall specific cases where they believed the “CSI Effect” played a roll in the decision of the jury and 85.5 percent said that they had changed their strategies and game plan in the court room for this reason. Lawyers have been know to complain that “‘jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case. They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television.’”

The “CSI Effect” is clearly effecting court room procedures and case outcomes but the question that Judge Donald Shelton posed when he embarked on a study of the phenomenon in 2006 with the help of two criminology professors at Eastern Michigan University, Gregg Barak, Ph.D., and Young Kim, Ph.D., was “Is it really CSI’s fault?”.

Shelton, Bark, and Kim had a little more than a thousand random jurors in Michigan complete a survey over the summer of 2006. The survey obtained demographic information and information about the participants television viewing habits. Including “the programs they watched, how often, and how ‘real’ they thought the programs were.” The survey asked questions that would gauge the knowledge of the potential jurors on different cases such as murder, assault and theft as well as questions about evidence in relation to those cases such as eyewitness testimony, DNA evidence and Ballistics. The survey wrapped up asking questions about 13 different scenarios and given the evidence whether they would find the defendant guilty or not guilty or if they were not sure what they would do.

The study found that Law and Order, with forty five percent, and CSI, with forty two percent, were two of the most commonly viewed shows and that people who viewed these shows , often watched other crime dramas as well. But now the question was “But do these viewing habits affect the case outcome?” and if so “Is it CSI’s fault?” Shelton’s results showed that for all evidence, both scientific and and non-scientific, such as eye-witness testimony, CSI viewers had higher expectations. Surprisingly though, these higher expectations rarely made an effect on the decisions jurors made when faced with the thirteen scenarios.

Shelton came to the conclusion that “It’s Not CSI!” because only “4 out of 13 scenarios showed some what significant differences between viewers and non-viewers... and they were inconsistent.” Here are some of the surveys findings:

-In the "every crime" scenario, CSI viewers were more likely to convict without scientific evidence if eyewitness testimony was available.

-In rape cases, CSI viewers were less likely to convict if DNA evidence was not presented.

-In both the breaking-and-entering and theft scenarios, CSI viewers were more likely to convict if there was victim or other testimony, but no fingerprint evidence.

Even though CSI viewers held higher expectations this rarely had any bearing on their convictions; Shelton believes that these findings bode well for the nations criminal justice system because peoples misconceptions and unrealistic expectations are not getting in the way of a persons right to a fair trial.

Shelton has shown us that we can’t blame television or CSI for this so called CSI Effect so the question is now, “Is there still even a problem to be addressed?” The answer is undoubtably yes. CSI might not have a direct effect on court cases among the thousand people in Michigan but we do know that lawyers have admitted to changing there own court room tactics because of the “CSI Effect” and this could change the outcome of a trial. We also only have a one study that was only done in one small area of the United States to look at when determining if the Effect is something to be concerned about.

Before Attorneys and Judges continue to alter there court room styles we need more evidence of whether it is really CSI causing people to wish that investigators had dusted every single blade of grass on a lawn for fingerprints or something else. Jurors aren’t stupid, and most realize that television takes some artistic license to entertain us so that we aren’t sitting for an hour watching AIFIS run prints or a lawyer, sitting in a hall patently waiting for a warrant request to go through. Still, we all know that things like DNA exist so we expect them to be used. Rather than complaining that the jury expects to much or being unrealistic perhaps time should be spent to inform. Rather than throwing their hands up and blaming CSI and Bones for the fact that the defendant might be acquitted perhaps the prosecution should squash what in their eyes is “unreasonable doubt.” The have a captive audience of twelve, all ready to hear what they have to say so maybe the expert witness should bring up the fact that it can take close to a thousand dollars and a year to run DNA so sometimes it’s not worth it depending on the other evidence.

As American citizens we all have he right to a fair trial and it is the lawyers and judges duty to provide that. So rather than blaming television and changing tactics because of CSI lawyers should realize that overall jurors know more than they used to simply because we live in an information age. We have access to knowledge more than ever before and therefore the courts have a responsibility to embrace that and understand that in trial so that the defendant still gets a fair trial rather than casting blame which is a waste of time.

Works Cited

Bass, Bill, and Jefferson, Jon. Deaths Acre. Berkley Books. New York. 2003. Print

Goodman-Delahunty, Jane, and Hielkje Verbrugge. "Australian Psychological Society : Reality, Fantasy and the Truth about CSI Effects." Australian Psychological Society : APS Homepage. Australian Psychological Society, 2010. Web. 20 June 2011.

Nafte, Mariam. Flesh and Bone. Carolina Academic Press. Durham, North Carolina, 2009. Print

Nielsen Ratings. “Top 10 TV Shows.” Nielsen, 13 June. 2011. Web. 22. June 2011

Shelton, Donald E. "The 'CSI Effect': Does It Really Exist?" National Institute of Justice 259 (2008). Office of Justice Programs, 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 20 June 2011.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.” FBI

Web. 24. June 2011


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    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 4 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Conditioning being the main point of Television since its creation, the reason so many of these shows exist is to encourage humanity to constantly demand proof.

      My contention has always been that proof is for suckers, incapable or unwilling to think for themselves.

      What The Powers That Be fear is that humanity will begin to seek answers by turning to the Source Field, the one thing that humanity shares that eternal and internal 'voice' inside all of us, that knows the truth.

      Because when we begin seeking answers from within, learn to think with our hearts instead of our minds (that can easily be changed) we will recognize that the answers to every question we have lies within the heart and soul of each and everyone of us.

      Governments, rulers and control systems will become obsolete and then we will rediscover our telepathic abilities and deception will become a thing of the past.

    • tmyerswrites profile image

      tmyerswrites 4 years ago

      'CIS' shows present unrealistic outcomes to the general public.. While they may increase the public's confidence and trust in the system that the offender is always caught and justice is served this is not the realistic outcome. Most of the procedures which occur within the shows are overly simplified in order to entertain the averaged educated.

      It would be interesting to know how many people watch these shows, then pursue a career in the field and end up quitting after they realize the actual differences.

    • inevitablesecrets profile image

      inevitablesecrets 6 years ago from California

      Thanks for the advice. I actually just posted a hub which goes against it all lol, but I will definitely keep it in mind for next time. I haven't done very many of these things so your tips are super helpful.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 6 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Your obviously a well educated writer as the works cited is evidence however I would suggest breaking up the paragraphs even more and and just showing links instead of cited works.

      Reading online is much easier when you break up the text and will keep the reader on your page longer. Put your main points in bold and use quotes as much as possible, I'm not saying shorter is better but attention spans what they are the key is to keep them on the page.

      Another helpful hint is to move the text to the right and then when in edit mode click on one of three boxes to put a background shade on the text, this works for sub paragraphs that are short, then line it up with the main content.

      Well done good hub!