Examining the Idea of the ‘CSI Effect’ and How It Changes Views on Forensic Science

The American Bar Association is an organization that strives to advance the field of law and all other fields connected to the law through resources and setting codes of ethics for those who practice law to follow. Their journal, Jurimetrics, showcases peer-reviewed articles discussing all things in the field of law, including one of the fields law most closely works with, forensic science. In the spring of 2007, Jurimetrics published an article in its 47th volume entitled ‘The CSI Effect: Popular Fiction About Forensic Science Affects the Public’s Expectations About Real Forensic Science’. The article was written by Nick J. Schweitzer and Micheal J. Saks. Schweitzer currently works as an associate professor of Social and Behavioral Science at Arizona State University (ASU), and serves as the founding director of ASU’s Law and Behavioral Science group. His research has been published in law and psychology journals as well as having been cited by the National Academy of Sciences and multiple U.S. state and federal courts. Saks works alongside Schweitzer at ASU as a Regents Professor in the College of Law and Department of Psychology, and is notable for his research on many aspects of law, but importantly in the law’s use of science. Among other accolades, Saks has edited several scientific journals and served as president of the American Psychology-Law Society.

The abstract of the article is both informative and descriptive, informing the reader of the idea of the CSI Effect, and how it can burden both sides of a trial by either creating greater expectations of forensic science or exaggerating the faith in forensic science’s reliability and abilities. It also describes how the study in the article operated, but testing first-hand the validity of the effect with a mock trial presented to mock jurors and how the jurors that were CSI viewers tended to be more critical of the forensic evidence presented in the case when compared to those jurors who were non-viewers of CSI. It also describes how those who view forensic science programming were more likely to be sure of their conviction rather than those who either did not view any programs of the sort or those who viewed general crime programming. It also showed that those who viewed forensic science programming were more likely than those who watched general crime programming to be critical of the forensic science evidence that was presented in the trial. The article was written to inform the reader of the CSI Effect concept and to accomplish the goal of presenting the data found in an experiment that tested the accuracy of this concept and provide evidence that can change how this concept affects the courtroom and law proceedings in the future and change how the public views forensic science and its role in the courtroom. The article is written both for professional audiences to inform them how these programs can factor in the outcomes and opinions associated with trials and forensic science evidence, but also serves to cater to the general public, especially those who often view forensic science programming, informing them how shows such as CSI sensationalize the field of forensic science and greatly exaggerate the abilities and workings of how forensic science is used in investigations and used to convict criminals or prove a suspect’s innocence. It uses this concept and its findings to allow the public to view forensic science in a more accurate light and be more aware of its uses and accuracies. The article provides a question of whether or not the CSI Effect is an accurate representation of how these programs change the public’s view of forensic science or if it does not, rather than assuming right off the bat that their work will provide proof that the effect is true. Throughout the article, other publications and real world happenings were mentioned and used to provide support for the research and experiment presented. Some examples include court cases that began the idea of skepticism in the courtroom and other authors who have proposed the idea of the CSI Effect and its prevalence in the world of law.

The information presented in the paper flows from as if the reader is following right along through the process of conducting the study, from understanding the concept on which the study will be focused, to the set-up of the study itself, the results found from the study, and how those results solidify the effectiveness of forensic science programming in influencing the public’s views and understanding of the use of these sciences in trials and law.

In this article, the authors explain how they set up their experiment and the materials they used. What is unique about this experiment is that the authors themselves wrote a simulated transcript of a fictional trial in which the forensic evidence was hair found on a ski mask left at the scene by the perpetrator. This evidence was said to be examined by a microscope technician who concluded it to belong to the accused. This information was presented to a group of jury-eligible college students who were then asked to take a brief questionnaire about their feelings on the trial and whether or not they viewed forensic science or crime programming. In the setup of their experiment, the authors showed good ethics by presenting the participants with the information they needed to make a decision and let them come to their own conclusions. The only tweaking needed would be for anyone other than those conducting the experiment to make the simulated trial. We are not given the actual transcript to look at in the paper so as the audience of the paper, we are unable to know if the wording of the transcript was impartial to one outcome or another or if it leaned the participants towards the outcome desired by the authors.

The results of the study were reported in the fourth section of the article. They reported that when compared to those that never viewed forensic science programming, those who did were more likely to be critical of the evidence presented, and overall more likely to provide a non-guilty verdict, although this difference from their non-viewing counterparts was not statistically important. While these results were the most important, as it provides the evidence needed to provide validity to the concept of the CSI Effect, the most interesting piece of evidence is that those who reported watching crime shows where forensics is not a large part of the show regularly were no different from their counterparts in the group who did not view any of these shows in their ideas of forensics or their verdict. Although, they did report having a better understanding of forensics than those who did not watch the show.

The biggest surprise found by the study was that the difference in the guilty and non-guilty verdicts compared with the viewership information. The CSI Effect highlights the idea that these shows highly affect the outcome of a trial, however, this isolated experiment did not agree with this statement. As acknowledged in the paper itself, this experiment had two shortcomings. For one, they did not test all aspects of the CSI Effect concept itself, mainly focusing on its effect on the outcome, rather than how it changes the public’s perception of forensic science as a whole. It also failed in providing a wide range of forensic evidence for the participants to analyze and use in their conclusions. Rarely in a real trial does the forensic evidence constitute only one item, much less that one item being a hair sample. The authors recognize these shortcomings and suggest other studies to examine the other aspects of the CSI Effect, and focus more on how these programs change or warp the perspective of the public on forensic science and its abilities. The authors also recognized that their mock jury came to their own, individual conclusions, rather than deliberating as a real jury would, which discounts for the peer pressure one might face to make the decision unanimous. Overall, the article concluded that the CSI Effect does have an effect on a trial, where it can control how the public views forensic science and how it works. It also concluded that the only way to counteract this effect is to exchange the bad information given to the public with good information about forensic science, information that is more scientifically sound.

Over the course of the article, the authors cited six other articles in order to provide more information to the readers and seem more creditable to the audience. They also cited several court cases where the CSI Effect has been thought to have factored into the outcome of the case. The paper itself can be described as accurate in its portrayal of what the CSI Effect is, where it originated, and how it can cause issues with the public’s views of forensic science and the outcomes of cases all over the world. This paper is absolutely relevant in our world today, as more and more interest in true crime and forensic science has evolved over the years, and more members of the public are likely to view forensic science programming, which then, in turn, could allow the CSI Effect to find its way into the court systems. The target audience of this paper ranged from professionals in the field and the public at large, to serve as a warning that these programs can cause this effect. The language used in the paper is not overly scientific or hard for the general public to understand, but it also has an air of professionalism about it, which caters to the more scientific audience that would also be reading this article. Seeing as the general public can easily read this paper, I was able to understand the message and contents of the article. The paper fit together very well and flowed through the information in a proper manner to make the paper logical, with no outright contradictions that could be found. While the paper does not outright look at an opposing viewpoint that would go against the concept of the CSI Effect, it does acknowledge that not all crime shows cause the views of the public to change about forensic science, but that shows that heavily include the practices of forensic science are the cause. They also acknowledge that their experiment did not cover all aspects of the concept and changes could be made to study the CSI Effect as a whole. This paper is very significant to our understanding of how media can affect us and society as a whole. This concept can lead to very dangerous outcomes, from those guilty of crimes being let go due to suspicion of forensic science or innocent people being sent to prison for the same reasons. The three “C’s” were definitely met by this paper, it was very clear and used correct language and grammar.

It was concise, getting right to the point of the paper and what point it was trying to make. Once again, it was very smooth in its transitions and how to present the information to its audience. No conflict of interest was present by the authors of this article. If given the chance, I would ask the authors if they feel as though this effect will ever disappear from our society, seeing as even if more programming comes out with correct forensic science, these programs with false forensic science will still exist, and the conflicting ideas of what forensic science actually is may cause even more issues with the public being confused as to what the truth actually is. The only changes I would make, or future action that should be taken, would be to once again test the other aspects of the CSI Effect concept and to see if the whole concept can be proven to occur in our society.

“Examining the CSI Effect and the Influence of Forensic Crime Television on Future Jurors” (Kopacki, 2013) disagrees with the experiment conducted in this article, saying that only including 48 jurors is not a big enough sample size to accurately come to a conclusion about the concept, only citing the paper once. “Investigating CSI: Portrayals of DNA Testing on a Forensic Crime Show and Their Potential Effects” (Ley, 2010) agreed with this article, using it once to explain how the concept of the CSI Effect has crept its way into the legal systems of our nation and world.

About The Author

Hannah McCleese is a Forensic Biology Major.

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