May 13, 2005

The "C.S.I. effect."

A criminology professor, Simon Cole, writes in the WSJ -- not the Wisconsin State Journal, the other WSJ -- about the much-vaunted "C.S.I. effect." Have the neatly packaged stories on the popular TV show reshaped jurors minds, causing them to hold prosecutors to unrealistically high standards?
[T]o argue that "C.S.I." and similar shows are actually raising the number of acquittals is a staggering claim, and the remarkable thing is that, speaking forensically, there is not a shred of evidence to back it up. There is a robust field of research on jury decision-making but no study finding any "C.S.I. effect."

There is only anecdotal evidence....

Cole argues that the media have fallen for the prosecutors' version of what the show has done to people's minds. There's a defendants' version too: it's made people think of "forensic evidence as unambiguous and more certain than it is."

Even without a systematic study, though, we can assume popular culture is always affecting how people think. Cole admits:
As Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner note in "Minding the Law" (2000), "judges and lawyers must inevitably rely upon culturally shaped processes of categorizing, storytelling, and persuasion in going about their business." TV has become our principal storyteller, transmitting legal norms or, arguably, creating them. It's been said that "NYPD Blue," like cop shows before it, educated the public about its Miranda rights. Other scholars talk about a "Perry Mason effect," which may cause juries to expect on-the-stand confessions like the ones Raymond Burr elicited week after week.
I've never seen "C.S.I." Surprised? I rarely watch any TV dramas (or movie dramas for that matter). I think I've come to dislike watching actors pretend to have problems and sitting around waiting for them to "solve" those problems.

But it seems to me that "C.S.I." would tend to sharpen a viewer's perception and attention to logical reasoning. I'm not that sympathetic to prosecutors' whining that they can't rely on jurors' fuzzy thinking anymore. Defense lawyers have always complained about the way jurors were dazzled by science and would defer to expertise. So what if everyone thinks he's an expert too now? That's an incentive for prosecutors to do their work well. The imperfection of real-life evidence is just one more thing they will have to get through to the C.S.I.-sharpened minds of the jurors.

9 comments:

Timothy K. Morris said...

It doesn't appear to have much effect on carefully selected juries. At least none of the assistants currently doing trial work in my office seem to think it's much of a problem. The problem is more on the lines of getting all the scientific tests actually done!

Jay said...

I don't think that you can relaly blame TV for too much. I love watching any flavor of Law & Order, but sometimes you just have to laugh at how easily evidence turns up. I mean, it isn't rare for the detectives to walk into a suspects home and find the murder weapon within seconds. I think most people can recognize that real life crime sovling is not so clean, quick, and easy.

Bruce Hayden said...

It is a great show - at least the original. I too don't watch many dramas, and in particular, mysteries. But I like CSI. It is a mystery series (with typically two parallel cases per episode). Much more fun that having to watch Perot.

And maybe I like it because I like the technology. After all, I am a patent attorney, and thus, not surprisingly, am a techophile.

Nick said...

There is a robust field of research on jury decision-making but no study finding any "C.S.I. effect."

How robust is it? I'm very curious on this personally... seeing as how juries make their decisions in private. Are many juries questioned for specific information after having made a decision? Is a juror required to answer? And how accurate do people think they are?

We know how some people tend not to be truthful to exit pollers after voting... so how honest are people going to be when defending their decision to aquit a child molestor or a murderer?

I'm not sure I would have answered questions if asked after serving on my one jury.

TWM said...

I have to disagree with Jay on this.

I have no evidence on how it effects juries, but I know for a fact that it is effecting the public at large (and logically juries). I cannot tell you the number of times people talk to me about my job and then bring up specific issues from CSI and other law enforcement shows.

Every one of them is shocked when I explain that a DNA test cannot be done in five minutes and that the complex crimes solved in one day on CSI take months and even years in real life.

So if people see Grissom and his people solve the murder at a high school reunion in one day and that red-headed guy on CSI Miami solve a major shooting in one day (he wore the same suit and shirt during the whole show), then I can't help but wonder if they don't think less of the cops when it takes them several months to solve a homicide.

And what department has the money for their crime scene guys to drive Hummers? Heck, the furniture in these shows cost more than the annual budgets of the average crime lab.

If only real cops had the fancy toys that they have on CSI and NCIS. Sigh, it's nice to dream.

Oh, and in case you didn't know. Attorneys arguing cases in cout don't sound anything like Perry Mason. It was very disappointing when that bubble was burst - LOL!

TWM said...

Ugh, I meant "court" and not "cout" of course.

I hate that when that happens.

Bruce Hayden said...

I would suggest that CSI is not really any more misleading than many other series. The big show when I was in law school was LA Law. And then, to discover that you couldn't get through discovery and trial in an hour. I was crushed.

One of my law profs was working hard to get us to join ROTC. He ended up retiring a couple of years ago as a LTC in the AF reserves JAG. But if I had known that I might be able to get my own F-14 (as Harm seems to a lot in JAG), I might have joined (except, by then, I was too old).

This friend made it out of the country legitimately only a couple of times during 25 years in JAG (I say legitimately, because he was always scamming billoting for himself and his family at AF bases around the world whenever they traveled). Harm and the crew of the JAG series seem to get out of this country and to visit foreign countries in almost every episode.

pierce79 said...

Although speculation as to the validity of the CSI effect abounds,[6] researchers have only recently begun studying the effect of CSI on juror behavior. One empirical study of the CSI effect suggests that viewers of CSI and other forensic science shows are more critical of forensic science testimony [8] and less persuaded by it; however, these same differences were not found for viewers of Law & Order (and other "general crime" shows),
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pierce79 said...

which implies that the CSI effect is limited to those who watch specifically forensic-science shows. Another study surveyed potential jurors and failed to find a link between CSI viewing and whether the jurors would "demand scientific evidence" in order for them to convict a defendant. A third study examined mock jurors' impressions of a criminal trial and found that CSI viewers' verdicts were not significantly different from non-viewers
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