Beyond frequency: perceived realism and the CSI effect.

AuthorMaeder, Evelyn M.
Position'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' television program

With an ever-increasing number of crime television programs in which forensic tests are used to solve a case in the course of a single episode, many criminal justice officials have begun to worry that the public may believe that forensic evidence is easy to obtain, quick to test, and free of potential flaws. These misperceptions would have their largest impact in the criminal courtroom, where members of the public serve as jurors, and thus, mistaken beliefs about availability, efficiency, and efficacy of forensic evidence could result in flawed verdict decisions.

The CSI effect refers to the perception commonly held by lawyers, judges, police officers, and even the general public that, due to the apparent availability of forensic evidence on crime television shows such as CSI, jurors may be either unwilling to convict in the absence of such evidence or overly reliant on it when it is presented (e.g., Heinrick 2006; Lawson 2009). Thus far, most research has failed to establish a link between watching crime television and verdict decisions in simulated criminal trials. Specifically, most studies have not revealed an effect of mock jurors' crime television consumption frequency on the willingness to convict in the presence or absence of forensic evidence. The present study sought to examine the effect of perceived realism (i.e., the degree to which an individual perceives the show to be realistic) of these programs, with the assumption that, even among those who watch crime television frequently, there may be important differences between individuals who believe that the television shows are realistic and accurate and those who do not. Specifically, we were interested in whether a CSI effect may result for those who find these shows to be accurate depictions of the criminal justice system, as opposed to for those who watch them purely for entertainment purposes, with an understanding of their unrealistic nature. Given the literature that suggests that perceived realism may influence the effect of television on attitudes (e.g., Busselle 2001; Taylor 2005), we sought to examine whether attitudes toward evidence and verdicts would vary as a function of the perceived realism of crime television.

We hypothesized that frequency of crime television consumption would be unrelated to major trial decisions, given that most studies have found no relationship between frequency of watching crime television and verdict decisions (e.g., Holmgren and Fordham 2011; Shelton, Kim, and Barak 2006), or at best have found an indirect relationship via perceptions of circumstantial evidence (Kim, Barak, and Shelton 2009). However, we suspected that those who believe that crime television shows offer a realistic depiction of the criminal justice system would be more likely to convict in a case involving DNA evidence, more likely to have positive attitudes toward DNA evidence, and more likely to perceive the DNA evidence as influential on their decision.

The CSI effect defined

As described by Kruse (2010), a typical episode of CSI begins with the discovery of a dead body, often a victim of murder, and finishes with the confession and arrest of a suspect. The central focus of the CSI series is on forensic science, as opposed to other aspects of the criminal justice system. This television series also suggests that forensic evidence is the only valid authority in criminal investigations (Kruse 2010), while witness testimonies are deemed unreliable and are not considered credible sources of evidence (Mann 2005). The science depicted in CSI is idealized and provides a definite, unquestioned resolution to every case (Kruse 2010). Ley, Jankowski, and Brewer (2012: 62) argue that CSI portrays DNA testing as "common, swift, reliable, and instrumental in solving cases." These misleading depictions have led some to believe that the overemphasis on forensic evidence and the portrayal of the limitless availability of such evidence in CSI have the potential to distort a juror's perception of reality.

Specifically, the CSI effect hypothesizes that, as a result of unrealistic depictions of forensic evidence on crime television shows (such as CSI), jurors may be overly influenced by forensic evidence in the courtroom, leading to two distinct possibilities: 1) when no forensic evidence is present, jurors will acquit, and 2) when forensic evidence is present, jurors will convict, even if it is flawed or countered by other important evidence (e.g., Heinrick 2006; Lawson 2009). The central perception is that these crime television shows create unrealistic expectations in those who watch them. In Canada, section 649 of the Criminal Code precludes jurors from speaking about their experiences during trials, and so we are unable to directly test whether a CSI effect exists by questioning jurors about their expectations and the potential influence of crime television post-trial. However, a great deal of survey and experimental research has tested for a CSI effect among a number of different groups.

The CSI effect: Perceptions within and outside of the criminal justice system

According to Houck (2006), the media first began to report about a CSI effect in 2003, mostly on the basis of anecdotes from police officers and prosecutors. Since then, perceptions of this effect have been found to be pervasive among those involved in the criminal justice system.


Heinrick (2006) argues that the CSI effect poses a threat to both prosecution and defence lawyers. If forensic evidence in not available, jurors may deem other evidence as insufficient to render a guilty verdict, resulting in an increase in acquittals. On the other hand, if DNA evidence is available for the prosecution, jurors may be overly reliant on this information and ignore relevant exonerating evidence. According to Lawson (2009), prosecutors and defence lawyers are under the impression that the CSI series affects the ability of jurors to remain impartial at every stage of the trial process. Cole and Dioso-Villa (2009) conducted a review of surveys that focused on legal actors' perceptions of a potential CSI effect. The analysis revealed that prosecutors and defence lawyers believe that juries are heavily influenced by CSI-type television programs.

The belief in a negative impact caused by CSI-type shows has also been demonstrated through the study of 102 prosecutors by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (2005)--74% of the prosecutors indicated that they had tried a case in which jurors expected scientific evidence, and 45% felt that jurors focused on forensic evidence to the point of ignoring other types of evidence. Importantly, prosecutors reported suspicion that jurors who watch crime television shows such as CSI may be overly influential in jury deliberations due to a perception of expertise in 72% of cases. As a result of these beliefs, lawyers have begun to change the way they present cases (Houck 2006; Maricopa County 2005). Therefore, it is clear that lawyers are concerned that jurors are influenced by CSI-type shows.

Police officers

Police officers may share this concern. The results of a qualitative study by Huey (2010) indicate that most police officers feel that they experience the CSI effect through public queries about the conduct of investigations. The study revealed that police officers are concerned that the inaccurate depictions of police work in CSI-type shows have created a new standard of judgement in the public eye that real life police work cannot meet. According to the majority of officers interviewed, there is a potential for public trust in the reliability of police forces to decrease due to unrealistic expectations created by CSI-type shows. This decrease in trust and reliance has been shown in the results of Stevens's (2008) study on the CSI effect and legal actors. It was found that police reports and non-forensic evidence collected by the police have had a reduced effect on guiding prosecution strategies in recent years. According to the results, currently, lawyers are generally more concerned with presenting forensic evidence as opposed to police testimony because they feel that jurors will respond more favourably to forensic evidence. Finally, research has shown that some police officers have changed the manner in which they interact with the public in light of their perceptions of the CSI effect (Stinson, Pa try, and Smith 2007).


A small body of research suggests that judges are also very likely to believe that the CSI effect has an influence on jurors' decisions. A poll taken at a conference of Louisiana judges (Toobin 2007) found that every judge at the conference believed CSI has had major impacts on the trial process. Judges, like prosecutors and police, believe that the CSI effect has led to an increasing number of wrongful acquittals of defendants on the grounds of insufficient forensic evidence (Shelton, Kim, and Barak 2006). Specifically, Hughes and Magers (2007) conducted a survey of 58 circuit court judges and found that 58.1% of judges responded agree or strongly agree to an item indicating that CSI-type television shows have had an impact on the administration of justice in their courtrooms. Fewer judges (53.4%) indicated that CSI-type shows have made it harder to convict defendants in their court, but three-quarters (75.7%) strongly agreed or agreed that CSI-type programs have increased jurors' expectations for forensic evidence. A year later, Robbers (2008) surveyed 89 judges and reported that 61% of judges felt that CSI-type shows had led to unreasonable expectations surrounding forensic evidence and only 1 judge indicated that the CSI effect is exaggerated.

Community members

One study has attempted to determine whether the community at large is concerned about the existence of a CSI effect. Hayes and Levett (2013) surveyed community participants with regard to their crime television watching habits and asked them whether they...

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