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Posted on October 5th, 2012, by

The CSI effect is a phenomenon of popular TV shows raising real-world expectations of forensic science by jurors, criminals and public. The term describes reactions to how the legal system is showed in the mass media. The CSI effect is blamed to confuse public perceptions of the real forensic science, criminal behavior; it particularly concerns court processes, where prosecutors are pressured to provide more forensic evidence and jurors “holiwoodize”¯ their decisions.

The notion of CSI effect was first mentioned in 2000 in one of newspaper articles. However, there are still scientific discussions about its validity. Researchers Cole and Dioso-Villa suggest measuring CSI effect through the following system of indicators (Cole 454):

1. Anecdotes. The media reports mostly rely on anecdotal messages about acquitting in cases with strong circumstantial evidence, such as the acquittals of Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, O.J. Simpson, and Michael Jackson, given a wide publicity.

2. Survey Data. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) held a research among 102 prosecutors who were to report their interview with jurors after their trials. During voir dire 70% of prosecutors asked potential jurors if their vision of the criminal justice system was based on TV shows, and 76% chose jurors basing on these answers. 38% reported that they “believed they had at least one trial which resulted in either an acquittal or hung jury when forensic evidence was not available to corroborate testimony that should have been sufficient by itself to sustain a conviction”¯. Relying on this data, the MCAO stated that the “study found a significant CSI influence in Maricopa County juries”¯.

3. Jury Simulations. Researches studying the measuring of the CSI Effect in simulated jurors rather than filtered through the prism of the courtroom professional showed that among those who found the defendant “not guilty”¯, i.e. 86%, 12% of frequent and 16% of non-frequent CSI viewers admitted that one or more CSI impact factors influenced their verdicts.

4. Acquittal Rates. Increase of acquittal rates correlated with increase in CSI viewership can be the evidence of the CSI effect influence. 1945-2005 examination shows a slow decline in acquittal rate over time, however it started to rise after 2000, when the notion of the CSI effect occurred.

Some media coverage of the CSI Effect indicates that it may not be caused directly by TV programs, but rather by the actual growth of the forensic science’s capabilities and power. However, it doesn’t explain that the effect is harmful. In the author’s opinion, these are the positive and negative aspect of the CSI effect:


1. Educational effect and public awareness about the CSI process

2. Popularization and attractiveness increase of the CSI-concerning professions

3. The growth of requirements to the forensic investigation


1. The influence on the court decision-making process and the whole legal system

2. Perfect crimes quantity growth

3. The loss of reality perceptions and as a result the public expectations overstating

No doubt that crime shows educate the audience. Even to Justice’s John Marshall Harlan mind, “television is capable of performing an educational function by acquainting the public with the judicial process in action.”¯ During the American Bar Association’s research in 2000 780 high school students throughout the USA were interviewed to determine their knowledge and attitudes toward the legal system. The most amazing results concerned the correlation between students’ knowledge and law TV-show viewing habits. The survey found that students regularly watching “Ally McBeal”¯ show were likely to demonstrate “medium low”¯ and “low”¯ knowledge index, compared to students watching other legal shows like “Law & Order”¯, who showed much better level (Schweitzer 359).

Some researchers refer to the CSI Effect notion to describe how it encourages students to study forensic science. Universities witness a rise in students choosing forensic science subjects and related scientific programs. There was some criticism from police side that in attempts to increase students’ quantity, universities offered inappropriate courses, leaving their graduates just unprepared for the forensic work in the real-world. In 2003 the American Academy of Forensic Sciences published accreditation standards for forensic science educational programs through the Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), basing on the US National Institute of Justice recommendations (Mann).

The CSI phenomenon also causes jurors to require a higher evidence standard to convict. The Supreme Court finds that “modern community living requires modern scientific methods of crime detection les the public go unprotected”¯. Having no forensic evidence, some jurors would accuse the state of not performing their high burden of proof of “beyond reasonable doubt”¯. A great responsibility of being a jury makes jurors looking to science, but not their intuition, because they should be properly convinced, making decisions. Findings show that CSI viewers, compared to non-CSI viewers, are more critical of the forensic evidence presented at the trial. According to their verdicts, 29% of non-CSI viewers would convict, compared to 18% of CSI viewers. The CSI viewers also appeared to be more confident about their verdicts than non-viewers (Cole 441).

However, the legal system influence by the CSI effect includes strong juror’s, prosecutors’ and defendant’s effects. Many experts are convinced that in the contemporary age of forensic science, the CSI effect gives unrealistic and heightened expectations of how forensic evidence determines defendant’s innocence or guilt. Increasing pressure to deliver strong evidence makes prosecutors try building a case satisfying not only the legal standard, but also a fictional “Hollywood”¯ standard.

The CSI effect can also influence the way crimes are committed. Criminalists notice a rise of criminal cases where suspects get rid of evidences (for example, destroy DNA evidence, carefully remove clothing fibers and hair). More and more perfect crimes are committed, because criminals are also learning from the great number of TV CSI shows, which have already become a kind of their instruction and idea generators.

Today TV depicting police work offers millions of people an image of the criminal justice system and shapes their sense of realism in understanding of criminal investigations. People overestimating the reality basis of CSI TV-shows develop unreasonable expectations of actual forensic practitioners. Though the technologies showed in fictional programs are worked out in real crime labs, they often take much more time and give more ambiguous answers than on TV. Analysts worry that the audience will believe that real forensics has become that fast and precise as they have always dreamed justice to be (Schweitzer 360). While surely not all the information people learn from crime shows can be considered fabled, it makes viewers think that they see an exact portrayal of the criminal justice system at work. E.g., as a result, students are quitting forensic programs, because they get disappointed by the degree of science involved and the unglamorous nature of the profession compared to its TV depiction (Mann).

Although there is a certain balance between entertainment and real science, entertainment always outweighs the latter. In general, television works for benefit, so as soon as a show gets high rating, advertising investments follow. While the cash flow is consistent, the accuracy of the scripts in relation to real life crime becomes less and less important.

There is little reality in TV crime programs, but they depict the criminal justice system in a light that most part of the public is happy to accept. Crime shows not only give us basic understanding of the criminal justice system, but also the “dream world of justice”¯.

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