The “CSI Effect”
Abstract and Keywords
Prosecutors and members of law enforcement have complained that television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have cultivated in jurors’ unreasonable expectations about forensic evidence, specifically that jurors require definitive forensic proof of guilt, or else they will wrongly acquit. This is popularly known as “CSI Effect.” Despite the popularity of this belief, there is little empirical evidence substantiating it. In fact, the majority of studies exploring CSI Effects have found evidence supporting a variety of impacts that advantage, rather than disadvantage, the prosecution. For instance, these programs frame forensics as objective and virtually infallible, bolster forensic technicians and the value of evidence associated with them, and promote schema that endorse prosecution narratives. Indeed, it appears that among CSI’s most salient impacts on the legal system comes not from these television programs distorting juror decision-making, but because lawyers and judges mistakenly believe such an effect exists, and, therefore, alter their behavior in response. It thus appears that the realities of the CSI Effect are quite different than the persistent mythology of it.
This article explores what is popularly known as the “CSI Effect” as well as other possible impacts of television’s forensic crime procedurals. Much of what the public knows, or thinks it knows, about the operations of law enforcement and the legal system comes from television. This is especially true with regard to the world of criminal forensic investigation (Podlas, 2008, pp. 11–14). Consequently, the stories that television programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation tell cultivate in the public perceptions about forensics and their use, which then reverberate through and impact other legal and cultural institutions. The ways in which and the extent to which they do so are the central questions this article addresses.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation joined the CBS primetime lineup in fall 2006, and quickly became one of the most watched shows on television. During its nine-year run, it inspired a number of spin-offs and copycats including CSI Miami, CSI New York, and Cold Case.1 Moreover, the series appealed to audiences around the globe; it has been exported internationally and is syndicated in more than 200 national markets (CBS Corp., 2010).
Although its television DNA can be traced to traditional police dramas, CSI helped establish a new variant of the crime genre: the forensic crime procedural (Dobson, 2009, p. 75). It is structured like a crime procedural, beginning with the commission of a crime and culminating in the arrest of the culprit; but rather than focusing on detective work or court proceedings, CSI follows the work of a team of forensic scientists (Kruse, 2010, p. 79). Unlike police officers who default to physical might and “gut” instinct, CSI’s forensic examiners rely on intellect, academic training, and science to uncover the truth (Barthe, Leone, & Lateano, 2013, p. 14). CSI did not relegate science to the obligatory lab report confirming illegal drugs or the medical examiner’s declaration that a gunshot through the head was the cause of death, but positioned it at the center of the narrative. In conjunction with this, CSI’s dynamic videography, vibrant color palette, fetishistic corporeal point of view shots, and special effects brought the science of death to life, and made science look sexy (Kruse, 2010, pp. 84–85).2 In many ways, forensic evidence itself was positioned as a key character: Moreover, it not only spoke for itself, but also it spoke only truth (Harris, 2011, p. 4; Kruse, 2010, pp. 81–82).
The History of the CSI Effect
Over time, the term CSI Effect has been used to refer to a variety of different effects. This chapter employs the most commonly accepted definition—that CSI causes a change in jurors’ evidentiary expectations regarding forensic evidence, in a way that is detrimental to the prosecution—and uses this as a springboard from which to explore a variety of impacts attributable to television’s forensic crime procedurals.
The CSI Effect was first articulated by Maricopa County (Arizona) District Attorney Andrew Thomas (Shelton, Kim, & Barak, 2006, pp. 335–336). Thomas complained that juries had become less likely to convict, because CSI had improperly heightened their evidentiary expectations of the prosecution (requiring proof to a near certainty), and, in turn, was causing an epidemic of wrongful acquittals (Harris, 2011, p. 4; Podlas, 2006, pp. 433–435; Podlas, 2007). He asserted that since forensic tests are always conducted on CSI, it creates in jurors an unreasonable expectation that forensic evidence of guilt always exists, and that the prosecution will introduce such proof. Consequently, if the prosecution does not introduce such evidence—even if it is irrelevant or unavailable—jurors will refuse to convict or deem it “reasonable doubt” warranting an acquittal (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, p. 22; Cooley, 2004, pp. 386–387; Podlas, 2006, pp. 433–434; Roane, 2005, p. 50; Shelton, Kim, & Barak, 2006, p. 8). Because this effectively imposes on the prosecution a prerequisite of forensic proof (regardless of its relevance) for conviction, it functionally increases the prosecution’s burden of proof to a near certainty (Harris, 2011, p. 4; Panel Three, 2005, p. 87; Podlas, 2006, 2007; Roane, 2005, p. 49).3
Suspicions of a CSI Effect might have remained a courthouse legend circulated among lawyers, but for the mass media (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1366–1370). Convinced that the CSI Effect was thwarting justice, a prosecutor wrote CBS asking it run a disclaimer before each CSI broadcast, and then issued a press statement in which he referenced a Maricopa County study showing that a CSI Effect was causing juries to wrongfully acquit (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, p. 1340; Harris, 2011, p. 10). After CBS replied that CSI was, in fact, having an impact on the public, but it was a positive one of increasing its interest in science and jury service, the story was picked up by the media (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1340–1341; Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 21–22; Shelton, Kim, & Barak, 2006, p. 8). Soon allegations of this CSI Effect were confirmed by prosecutors and members of law enforcement who offered anecdotal “evidence” of cases they had inexplicably lost, and the CSI Effect was accepted as fact (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 24–25; Podlas, 2006, 2007; Shelton, Kim, & Barak, 2006, p. 8). Indeed, by 2004, the national popular press, including USA Today and U.S. News & World Report, featured stories such as “The CSI: Effect, How TV is Driving Jury Verdicts All Across America” (Roane, 2005, p. 48). By 2005 there were more than 50 newspaper and magazine articles on the CSI Effect and in 2006, there were almost 80 (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1338–1339). This perfect storm of CSI’s popularity, narratives of justice being perverted, scientific “proof,” and prolific media coverage helped transform the accusations of the CSI Effect into a reality (Podlas, 2006, 2007).
Discussion of the Literature: Evidence Supporting the CSI Effect
Notwithstanding the popularity of the notion of an anti-prosecution/increased burden CSI Effect, there is relatively little proof of one (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009; Goodman-Delahunty & Verbrugge, 2010; Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 84–86, Podlas, 2006, 2007; Tyler, 2006a). The majority of evidence supporting it is comprised of surveys of attorneys and law enforcement officers regarding their belief in the CSI Effect and personal anecdotes of juries that refused to convict despite overwhelming proof of guilt.
Over the last decade, surveys have consistently shown that many members of the bench and bar believe that a CSI Effect exists (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1351–1353; Mancini, 2013, p. 545; Robbers, 2008; Smith, Stinson, & Patry, 2011, p. 5).4 In fact, the Maricopa County study that catapulted the CSI Effect into the public fore and continues to serve as its primary empirical foundation, was a survey of 102 prosecutors that asked whether they believed there was a CSI Effect and/or had altered their trial strategies because of it (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 24–25; Thomas, 2006, p. 72). This study found that a majority of prosecutors believed there was such an effect and were changing their litigation strategies in response (Thomas, 2006).
Aside from methodological issues related to its narrow sample, this survey reflected only attorney perceptions of whether some other population’s opinions (that is, the public’s) had changed. Notably, it did not endeavor to collect data regarding the actual existence of such an effect: It did not survey jurors or television viewers, identify factors used in decision-making or opinions about scientific evidence, or analyze the narrative of the television show to determine whether it taught that the failure to present forensic evidence indicated that the prosecution could not meet the burden of proof (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1352–1353).
More importantly, however, this study conceded that “verdicts ha[d] not yet noticeably changed from guilty to not guilty” and there had been no change in acquittal rates (Thomas, 2006, pp. 71–72). Consequently, this study, which repeatedly has been cited as demonstrating the existence of the “CSI Effect,” produced no evidence of it.
While this and similar surveys demonstrate that members of the justice system believe in a CSI Effect and even adjust their behaviors, such as witness questioning, voir dire practices, or jury instructions, because of that belief, they are not proof of a CSI Effect on the public (let alone one that is detrimental to the prosecution). Rather, they are proof that legal actors believe there is a “CSI Effect,” and may be impacted by that belief (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1352–1353). In the same way that a survey of six-year-olds finding that they believe in Santa Claus is not proof that Santa exists, a survey of attorneys finding that they believe in a CSI Effect is not proof that a CSI Effect exists. Simply, the belief in a CSI Effect is not evidence of a CSI Effect (Podlas, 2006, pp. 445–446, 462).
This type of belief exemplifies the well-documented “third person effect.” The Third Person Effect or third person perception refers to the tendency for people to believe that the media affects others (usually negatively), but does not affect them; Hence, the media’s effect is on third parties (Schmierbach, Boyle, Xu, & McLeod, 2011, pp. 307–308). It is common for this to be the basis for placing limitations on media or enacting responses to it, in the name of preventing some perceived negative consequence of that media (Schmierbach et al., 2011, p. 310). Here, survey responses that CSI impacts audiences and jurors likely reflect a Third Person Effect.5
The other primary evidence of the CSI Effect is anecdotal evidence that juries in unspecified trials refused to convict, despite overwhelming evidence of guilt (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 24–25; Podlas, 2006, pp. 433–434, 462). A frequently noted example is the acquittal of actor Robert Blake who was accused of murdering his wife. The outcome of that case, however, depended heavily on the jury’s assessment of the veracity of the witnesses and the theory of guilt presented. Therefore, not only is that acquittal explainable and not “wrongful,” but also it is explained by factors other than the lack of forensic evidence (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1350–1351; Mancini, 2013, pp. 544–545). Similarly, verdicts in “he said/ she said” cases and unspecified trials, may be reasonable or, if factually incorrect, are not necessarily examples of an anti-prosecution CSI Effect (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 24–25, 28; Podlas, 2006, pp. 462–463).
In any event, without information about specific cases, the assessment that they were airtight or that their outcomes were objectively wrong is specious. Advocates can develop a distorted sense of the strength of a case.6 Furthermore, asking attorneys to recall trials that did not go as expected and to explain losses in cases they expected to win is a certain recipe for hindsight bias (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, p. 1353; Podlas, 2006, pp. 462, 465; Podlas, 2009, pp. 492, 501). As Kahneman (2013) explains, people tend to revise past events and their narratives of them in light of the outcome. When the outcome is perceived to be “bad,” people are prone to overstate the accuracy of their original predictions (here, the verdict and weight of evidence) and to blame decision-makers (here, jurors) perceived to be responsible for the bad decision. The worse is the consequence, the greater the hindsight bias (pp. 202–204). Consequently, attorneys who lose cases are likely to amend unconsciously their recollections of the strength of the evidence. In such an instance, the CSI Effect is a function of hindsight bias that enables advocates to shift blame and make sense of a disappointing outcome (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1352–1353; Tyler, 2006a, p. 1078).
Evaluating the CSI Effect
When evaluating both the existence of a CSI Effect and studies investigating it, one must avoid what Cole and Dioso call “hypothesis swapping.” “Hypothesis swapping” is when evidence of one type of effect is used as evidence supporting the existence of a differently valenced effect. In particular, it is common for evidence of an effect that would advantage the prosecution to be used as proof of an effect that disadvantages the prosecution (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1346–1347). To avoid this, it is necessary to clarify that the negative, anti-prosecution CSI Effect is be defined in terms of the evidence the prosecution must present or the burden it must meet to obtain a conviction. Essentially, it imposes an absolute evidentiary prerequisite that the prosecution produce forensic evidence, even if it is not relevant, possible, or the prosecution has clearly exceeded the burden of proof. The CSI Effect is not exemplified by an acquittal in a closely disputed case, as that is not a scenario in which the burden of proof was undeniably met or “but for the absence of forensic evidence” the jury would have convicted; It also is not the simple expectation that forensic evidence will be introduced or disappointment if it is not, as neither is not equivalent to an improper, negative inference.7 Please see Table 7.1.
Anti-prosecution; Increased-burden effect; Strong Prosecution Effect
Requiring forensic evidence proving guilt; increasing burden beyond a reasonable doubt to certainty; wrongful acquittal/failure to convict where proof is beyond a reasonable doubt
Anti-defense/pro-prosecution effect; “defendant’s effect”
Over-valuation of forensic evidence; perceiving forensic evidence to be infallible and objective; valuing disputed “forensic” methods and junk science;
Bolstering credibility and veracity of forensic witnesses;
Leads to wrongful convictions/failure to acquit where evidence does not meet burden
Second Order Effects; “CSI Effect” Effect; (“weak prosecution effect”)
On attorney, judges
Changes in behavior, presentation of case, voir dire, rulings, jury charges due to belief that a “CSI Effect” exists
Second Order Institutional Effects; “CSI Effect” Effect; “police chief effect”; “law enforcement effect”
Change of policies; organizational and staff alterations (addition of forensics units); change in job credentials for forensic technicians
Students, Colleges, Education
Increased interest in science and STEM careers; development of educational programs in forensic sciences/STEM
Since concerns about a CSI Effect first arose, scholars and practitioners from a variety of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, law, media studies, and cultural studies, have explored causal connections between watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and jurors’ decision-making or attitudes about forensic evidence. The foci and methodologies of this research are as varied as the researchers: They consider jurors, television viewers, and members of the legal profession in the United States and abroad; use trial transcripts, video materials, and scenarios that manipulate the absence and relevance of forensic evidence; and measure verdicts, evidentiary expectations, and responses to different forms of evidence.8 As discussed later on, the overwhelming majority of studies have found no evidence of a CSI Effect that negatively impacts the prosecution or that forensic crime shows are correlated with either acquittals or distortions in the deliberative process. To the contrary, results suggest that to the extent that CSI impacts juror attitudes, it does so in a way that benefits the prosecution (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1340–1341, 1349; Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 24–25, 28; Kruse, 2010, pp. 87–88, Podlas, 2006, p. 452; Tyler, 2006a, p. 1063).
One of the earliest CSI Effect studies investigated whether there was a connection between CSI viewing and heightened evidentiary demands. Focusing on the allegation that CSI causes jurors to require forensic evidence for conviction even if such evidence is irrelevant or proof of guilt exceeds reasonable doubt, Podlas (2006) created classic “he-said/ she-said” trial scenarios in which the verdict depended on which witness or version of events was believed, and forensic evidence was irrelevant. In one scenario, 306 mock jurors reviewed the evidentiary scenarios and rendered individual verdicts. Regardless of the amount of CSI individuals watched, their evidentiary requirements for guilt did not vary significantly: Rather, the type and amount of evidence that frequent CSI viewers required or deemed important for conviction was the same as that required by infrequent or non-viewers of CSI. More importantly, neither group required forensic evidence as a prerequisite for conviction (Podlas, 2006, pp. 455–461). A follow-up study of 538 mock jurors repeated the protocol, but also identified the specific factors used by jurors in their decision-making. It again found no significant difference between the evidentiary demands and proportion of acquittals/convictions of the CSI viewers as compared to non-viewers. Additionally, neither viewing group seemed to impute forensic evidence as a prerequisite for a conviction (Podlas, 2006, pp. 453–461; Podlas, 2007, pp. 112–121).
Several more recent studies, of populations in the United States and abroad, have also failed to produce definitive evidence that CSI viewing impacts verdicts or cultivates a forensic requirement for conviction (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, p. 25). One that found no support for an anti-prosecution effect, adduced evidence that heavy viewers of crime dramas were more certain of the defendant’s guilt (Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 102–103). Another discerned no meaningful connection between CSI viewing and acquittals, but suggested that crime drama viewers as a whole might be prone toward acquittal. Nevertheless, the lack of forensic evidence (in the prosecution’s case) did not appear to be a relevant explanatory factor (Mancini, 2011, pp. 168–169), and might skew marginally in the opposite direction (Mancini, 2013, pp. 557–558). Tyler (2006a) has explained that from a psychological perspective, viewers of CSI should be more prone toward convictions. Indeed, frequent viewers of crime and law dramas tend to believe that prosecutors are highly ethical and associated with a quest for justice, which would appear to favor convictions, not acquittals (Podlas, 2008, pp. 13–15; Podlas, 2009, pp. 489–492, 496–497). Therefore, if CSI has an impact, it would be expected to benefit the prosecution.
Whereas the above consider the phenomenon at the micro-level of jurors and verdicts, Cole and Dioso-Villa, who have made some of the most significant contributions to our understanding of CSI-related impacts, have also examined the issue from the macro-level (2009, 2011). Reasoning that an epidemic of wrongful acquittals or refusals to convict would be reflected in national conviction rates declining and/or acquittal rates increasing, Cole and Dioso-Villa conducted linear regression models comparing federal acquittal rates before and after CSI’s 2000 premier. Not only did they fail to find any discernable increase in acquittals (or decrease in convictions), but contrary to what would be expected if an anti-prosecution/increased-burden CSI Effect existed, they saw a decrease in acquittals (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1360–1363, n. 63). Their follow-up analysis of more than a dozen states and federal courts showed that acquittal rates in the studied states varied a bit, but were fairly stable over time. Additionally, in the few states where acquittals had briefly increased for one to two years, they had begun to do so prior to the advent of CSI. Cole and Dioso-Villa explain that this data could be interpreted in a variety of ways: There is insufficient evidence of an anti-prosecution CSI Effect; there are two countervailing “CSI Effects” operating concurrently, but canceling each other out statistically; there is an effect, but the prophylactic measures of prosecutors corrected for it; or some other historical factor impacted verdicts (pp. 1357–1364). Other researchers employing similar approaches to state courts and Canadian tribunals have also failed to detect an increase in acquittal rates attributable to a CSI Effect (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1356–1357; Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 26–28; Mancini, 2013, p. 545).
Perhaps the thing closest to an anti-prosecution CSI Effect that has been identified is a general increase in jurors’ expectations about forensic evidence. A number of studies show that contemporary jurors expect that forensic evidence will be presented at trial, and that CSI viewers tend to place greater weight on this type of evidence (Mancini, 2013, pp. 545–546; Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011). Nonetheless, these increased expectations do not appear to translate to an effect detrimental to the prosecution.
Shelton, a judge and scholar, is most closely associated with exploring the connection between jurors’ evidentiary expectations, television viewing, and advances in science and technology. In consecutive studies, 1,027 suburban (Shelton, Kim, & Barak, 2006) and 1,219 metropolitan (Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011) prospective jurors reviewed a variety of criminal trial scenarios, and then detailed the types of evidence they expected to receive and the verdict they would render depending on whether particular evidence was presented. Jurors across the board expected to receive forensic evidence and held high expectations of it, but that this was not correlated with television; Rather, there were only marginal differences between the responses of CSI and non-CSI viewers (2006, pp. 332–339; 2011, pp. 8–9). More importantly, these increased expectations, whatever their basis, did not translate into a requirement that forensic evidence be introduced for a conviction, but ran counter to an anti-prosecution effect (Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011, p. 9). Shelton thus concluded that “it is not appropriate to characterize such acquittals as wrongful, as prosecutors are wont to do when they lose cases” (p. 9).
Shelton and others attribute this change in expectations, or what he called a “tech effect,” not to television, but to society’s advances in science and technology (Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011). Today’s jurors live in a world with home pregnancy tests, mail-order DNA analyses, smartphones, instant streaming media, and Fitbits that track our physical activity and calorie intake. It is not surprising that they take such changes into account in their decision-making, and expect “real-life technological improvements in forensic science” (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, p. 1347) to apply in the courtroom (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 23–24; Shelton et al., 2006, pp. 364, 367; Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011, pp. 8, 12). Therefore, this tech effect or change in expectations likely reflects the evolved capabilities of forensic science and technology, and, in turn, juror expectations (Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011, pp. 8, 12).9 In fact, it would be unusual if juror expectations did not change over time (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1347–1348). Additionally, any increased juror scrutiny due to this recalibration is not restricted to the prosecution, but extends to the defense. Therefore, because jurors with high expectations hold both sides to them, any impact on the prosecution is shared by the defense (Holmgren & Fordham, 2011, p. S68).
Furthermore, jurors who interpret the absence of forensic evidence against the prosecution may be justified in doing so. Despite cultural anxiety that jurors are out of control and easily duped, they are not unsophisticated. Information obtained through structured interviews reveals that when jurors interpret the absence of forensic evidence against the prosecution, it is not because the prosecution is being held to an unjustly high burden of proof, but that the absence of evidence is relevant in the context of the particular case (Holmgren & Fordham, 2011, pp. S67–S68). For example, law enforcement’s failure to collect evidence at the scene or the tenor of testimony regarding that choice may reveal a rush to judgement. As some study participants explained, when it would have been easy to collect evidence or definitively inculpated or exculpated the accused (in a circumstantial case), the purposeful failure to do so raises the possibility that the police had already made up their minds about the defendant’s guilt or were cavalier (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, p. 22; Holmgren & Fordham, 2011, pp. S67–S68). Thus, when jurors considered the absence of forensic evidence it was not indicative of an increased burden of proof, but of what the failure to collect meant in the context of the facts. Similarly, though prospective jurors may be more likely to acquit in cases constructed of circumstantial evidence than in those constructed of direct and forensic evidence (Shelton, Barak, & Kim, 2011, pp. 8–9), this does not by itself indicate an irrational refusal to convict (Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 102–103).10 Rather, it is maybe a function of the evidence. By definition a case constructed of circumstantial evidence is weaker than that same case plus direct and forensic evidence (Holmgren & Fordham, 2011, pp. S66–S68; Kruse, 2010, p. 88). Consequently, a jury should be more likely to acquit in the former than in the latter.
Positive Impacts on the Prosecution and “Inverse CSI Effects”
Although there is little evidence that forensic crime procedurals distort juror decision-making in ways that harm the prosecution or increase the burden of proof, they, nonetheless, contribute to the public’s perceptions about the use and capabilities of forensic evidence and its examiners (Bignell, 2004, pp. 127–132; Machado, 2012, p. 272; Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 85–86). The valence of those impacts, however, likely inure to the benefit, not the detriment, of the prosecution. In fact, several studies investigating the existence of anti-prosecution “CSI Effects” have uncovered evidence of pro-prosecution or “Inverse CSI Effects.”
Reinforcing Prosecution Narratives
Where media have been shown empirically to impact the public’s opinion about an issue, its importance, how to analyze it, what should be done about it, or how common it is, the particular effect, that is, the opinions, estimates, etc., can be traced to the media’s underlying message or content. Accordingly, any effects of CSI would also be founded on what its stories say, how frequently they say it, and the ideologies or perspectives they highlight and privilege. To this end, scholars have noted that CSI’s narrative of forensics is inconsistent with an anti-prosecution CSI Effect (Podlas, 2006, p. 452; Tyler, 2006a, p. 1063). CSI shows that forensic techniques are important investigatory tools and the factual lynchpin to arrest. It shows that witnesses may be unreliable, untruthful, or otherwise flawed, but forensic evidence is unbiased and cannot lie (Harris, 2011, p. 4; Kruse, 2010, pp. 81–84). This would be expected to favor the prosecution.
More specifically, CSI’s narrative positioning and stories of forensic techniques both establish and reinforce cultural schema for understanding and valuing them (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011, pp. 916–918). Schema and related decision-making heuristics are exemplars or mental rules of thumb that guide cognitive processing and help people make sense of information (Borah, 2011, pp. 248, 251–253; Garrett et al., 2013, pp. 618–619). Additionally, the easier something is to recall, be it due to repetition, personal impact, or message attributes, the more powerful it is as a schema or heuristic (Garrett et al., 2013, pp. 618, 621).
As applied to the courtroom, these schema can become a standard by which jurors interpret and evaluate forensic evidence, and develop a story of what occurred. Furthermore, a narrative that fits an established television narrative is deemed more believable (Bignell, 2004, pp. 95–96; Kinder, 2007, p. 159).11 In this way, the CSI schema can impact verdicts (Kinder, 2007, p. 159; Podlas, 2009). Because CSI employs visually compelling imagery, engaging narratives, and templates of forensic investigation that are repeated both in episodes and across series, their salience is increased.
This narrative may also counter concerns that jurors will think that a prosecutor who fails to introduce forensic evidence of guilt has failed to meet its burden of proof. Notably, on CSI, there is never a trial, let alone one in which the forensic evidence is uncertain or its absence indicates innocence or that an acquittal is just. To the contrary, the television schema establishes that a defendant is not arrested until forensics has objectively proven guilt. Consequently, even if jurors expect to receive forensic evidence or are disappointed if they do not, it would not reasonably translate into a negative inference against the prosecution. Rather, jurors are likely to presume that forensic analysis occurred as a precedent to arrest: Otherwise, this defendant would not be on trial.
Related to this, some researchers hypothesize that CSI contributes to a genre-specific cultivation effect (Kar-Weng et al. (2013), pp. 417–418; Mancini, 2013, pp. 545–548). According to cultivation theory, the heavy, long-term exposure to television’s imagery cultivates in viewers’ perceptions of reality that are consistent with that imagery. Cultivation is not an immediate, direct effect, but a cumulative subtle one. Thus, when a television viewer repeatedly sees factual and fictional stories of crime and violence, over time, the viewer may come to believe that crime and violence are common in the real world (Cohen & Weimann, 2000; Goidel, 2006; Morgan & Shanahan, 2010, p. 339). As applied to CSI, over time, CSI’s consistent portrayals of forensic analysis as a standard investigatory tool and precursor to arrest cultivates in frequent viewers of the genre a belief that testing commonly occurs prior to arrest (Kar-Weng et al., 2013, pp. 417–418; Podlas, 2007). Therefore, even if jurors are not privy to the forensic results, they will presume results confirming guilt exist.
The Reliability and Validity of Forensic Methods
The way that CSI frames forensic investigation is likely to enhance the public’s perception of it, as well as the strength, infallibility, and probative value of evidence and results labeled forensic. A robust body of research shows that the framework television uses to present an issue often impacts the way that people understand it (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, pp. 661–662; Nisbett, Hart, Myers, & Ellithorpe, 2013, pp. 766–767). When the media frames an issue in a particular way, such as discussing alcoholism as a disease (rather than as irresponsible thrill-seeking) or teen sexting as illegal child pornography (rather than as the millennial equivalent of playing “doctor”), the audience tends to adopt that framework in conceptualizing it (Baumgartner, 2006; Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, p. 663). The framework, along with the priorities emphasized by and logic inherent in it, then serves as the lens through which audiences understand the issue, and guides the analytical process. Consequently, it impacts the audience’s opinions and decisions about the issue (Borah, 2011, pp. 247–228; Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, p. 663; Kahneman, 2013, p. 371; Nisbett et al., 2013, p. 767).
Once established, frames (and the decision-making heuristics resulting from them), including ones lacking factual substantiation, are unusually resilient to change. Even in the face of information contradicting the frame, individuals typically maintain the original frame, and fortify it (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, pp. 663, 673; Garrett et al., 2013, pp. 617–619). “People think in frames . . . To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit the frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off” (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, pp. 663, 681). This is so much so that people tend to distrust sources that present information that conflicts with an established frame (Garrett et al., 2013, pp. 617–618). Conversely, information consistent with an existing frame or opinion is deemed more believable (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, p. 681).
CSI provides a framework for evaluating the weight and probative value of forensic testing and proof, and, ultimately guilt. On CSI, forensic testing is objective and produces unambiguous findings of fact; it does not involve subjective evaluation or instances where experts can reach different conclusions. Instead, it is like math: there is only one answer. Additionally, forensics is framed as highly accurate, if not infallible. Provided there is sufficient evidence to perform the test, it is accurate and able to reveal objective truth. CSI tells viewers that “Physical evidence cannot be wrong; it does not lie” (Harris, 2011, p. 4). This is reinforced by the story structure and resolution: Once forensic evidence reveals the identity of the perpetrator, the culprit usually confesses and is summarily removed from society. No further forensic confirmation, let alone a trial, is seen or necessary (Harris, 2011, pp. 9–10).
The frames prominent in CSI may not only lead jurors to believe that crime scene evidence is more accurate than it is, but also make forensics sacrosanct (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, p. 28; Cooley, 2004, pp. 389–391; Kruse, 2010, p. 86). Consequently, jurors will be disinclined to accept that a different technician could reach a different conclusion or that forensic “proof” could be compromised by human error (Podlas, 2007, 2009; Panel, 2005, p. 82). After all, on CSI, mistakes occur only when people tamper with evidence or infect the crime scene. Additionally, because, in the face of contrary information, people fortify the frame and even distrust the individual revealing the contrary information, claims that legitimately dispute forensic findings or their assertions of certainty are likely to be rejected and have the opposite effect of strengthening confidence in the evidence, not to mention diminish the stature of and trust in the defense (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011, p. 681; Garrett et al., 2013, pp. 617–618).
These framing effects would not be so problematic if the frames accurately reflected reality, but they do not. Unlike CSI, most forensic “findings” are not unambiguous “Yes/No” answers (Mancini, 2011, pp. 155–156); Rather, they are expressed as probabilities of likelihood or require subjective evaluations that can vary from person to person (Kruse, 2010, p. 86). Additionally, though CSI frames all forensic techniques and conclusions deemed “forensic” as equally reliable, in reality, different forensic techniques and evidence have very different degrees of reliability and acceptance in the scientific community. In fact, several techniques that are standard on television, such as bite-mark analysis, dog sniff evidence, non-DNA hair analysis, tool mark, footprint impressions, creating plaster casts from wounds, and handwriting identification, have been criticized as unreliable by courts and the scientific community (Podlas, 2006, pp. 437–439; Smith, Stinson, & Patry, 2011, pp. 4–5).
Furthermore, the best labs are not immune from errors in statistical computations, mismatches, evidence contamination, and other human error. Unfortunately, errors are more frequent and widespread than previously thought (Kruse, 2010, p. 86; Perry, 2011, pp. 7–8). In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences reported that when evidence is subject to interpretation, forensic technicians working for law enforcement sometimes conform their conclusions to match the prosecution’s theory of the case or sacrifice the accuracy and the neutrality of “blind” testing for expediency (Perry, 2011, p. 8).12
Indeed, there is evidence that CSI enhances the public’s perception of forensics and its abilities. A study of Malaysian viewers concluded that the only demonstrable effects of watching forensic dramas were to enhance viewers’ perceptions of forensics, its infallibility, and criminologists (Kar-Weng et al., 2013, p. 26). Similarly, a study of Australian and Canadian individuals concluded that crime drama viewers (primarily of CSI and Law & Order) were more likely to hold erroneous and inflated beliefs about the abilities, value, and infallibility of forensics. Viewers who watched more regularly believed that forensic evidence delivered concrete results and was the best type of evidence, whereas those who watched less frequently did not share these views (Holmgren & Fordham, 2011, pp. S65–S66). The frequent viewers also believed that “state of the art” technology had largely eliminated human error in forensic testing (Holmgren & Fordham, 2011, pp. S65–S66). Smith and colleagues (2011) also found that CSI viewing is positively associated with the belief that questionable or unproven forensic methods are more accurate and reliable than they are (pp. 6–7). They pointed out, however, that it cannot be said that CSI viewing causes this; it may be that individuals inclined to credit such evidence are drawn to CSI or that there is some other causal factor altogether (p.7).
Other studies also suggest that viewers of crime dramas tend to give greater weight to forensic evidence (Machado, 2012, pp. 271–273; Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 102–103).13 Consistent with this, individuals who consumed a greater amount of crime television were more certain of the defendant’s guilt and inclined toward guilty verdicts (Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 101–102). Notwithstanding, this did not appear related to attitudes about evidence.14 Yet, in seeming contrast to the above, Schweitzer and Saks (2007) found that viewers who watched forensic science television shows rated themselves as having an above-average understanding of forensic science, and were more critical of certain forensic techniques. The import of these findings, however, is unclear. On the one hand, the link between television viewing and the increased scrutiny applied to forensic evidence could fairly be categorized as a forensic crime genre effect, which substantiates some “CSI Effect.” On the other hand, the forensic evidence of which viewers were critical was hair analysis, a suspect technique subject to significant criticism (Podlas, 2006, pp. 437–439; Smith et al., 2011). Therefore, the viewers were correct to scrutinize more critically this sort of evidence, so this scrutiny presumably results in improved verdictal decision-making (Maurantonio, 2012, pp. 2–4). Moreover, that they did so regrading an outlier forensic technique does not indicate they would with an empirically accepted technique.
Bolstering Forensic Witnesses
Just as CSI can enhance jurors’ perceptions of forensics, its portrayal of forensic examiners and criminologists can enhance perceptions of these witnesses, and, in turn, bolster their credibility. This is consistent with other information that the way television portrays members of the justice system impacts viewers’ perception of them (Pfau, 1995; Podlas, 2008, pp. 11–14).
CSI portrays members of the forensics team as brilliant, hard-working individuals whose sole interest is in using science to solve the crime (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, p. 1348, Podlas, 2009). They are elite guarantors of truth able to discover facts invisible to the rest of the world (Harris, 2011, p. 10). A number of studies support the notion that this impacts jurors by elevating their perceptions of witnesses testifying about forensic matters (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, p. 22). Several scholars believe it causes the public to put blind faith in forensics and forensic experts (Kruse, 2010, p. 87). (Law & Order viewers have also been shown to interpret evidence in ways that benefit the prosecution; Podlas, 2008). In fact, one researcher concluded that one of the few demonstrable effects of forensic drama viewing is to increase viewers’ positive opinions about forensics and members of the profession (Kar-Weng et al. (2013, p. 426). This makes it an uphill battle for attorneys who wish to claim that forensic technicians may make mistakes, conform findings to the prosecution’s theory of guilt, or offer opinions beyond there are of expertise. Of course, like all other witnesses, crime scene investigators and forensic technicians make mistakes and can be victims of unconscious bias. A few have even fabricated evidence and lied under oath.15
Additionally, the positive value associated with a forensic expert can spill over to and cast a halo effect on the valuation of other prosecution evidence, strengthening it. Maeder and Corbett (2015) discovered that jurors who rate the government’s forensic experts more favorably were also more influenced by the forensic evidence presented by or associated with those experts (pp. 100–101). This played out in the evaluation of the evidence presented by the defense: Jurors who rated the government’s witnesses or forensic evidence more favorably, rated the defense’s eyewitness testimony and character evidence less favorably (pp. 100–101).
Second Order Effects
Impacts on the Bench and Bar
Aside from any direct impact it may have on jurors, CSI can have second order or indirect effects that impact other populations and institutions. These second order “CSI Effects” are what Cole and Dioso-Villa call the “‘CSI Effect’ Effect” (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009).
Ironically, one of CSI’s most salient effects on the legal system is a second order effect. As noted, surveys show that many judges and attorneys believe that the CSI genre causes an anti-prosecution/increased-burden effect (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1349–1351; Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 29–30; Mancini, 2011, pp. 156–157; Robbers, 2008; Shelton, Kim, & Barak et al., 2006, pp. 378–381; Shelton et al., 2011, pp. 17–18). This belief—albeit a misguided one—has caused attorneys, judges, and law enforcement professionals to alter their behaviors and practices in response to the perceived effect (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011; Shelton et al., 2011, pp. 17–18; Smith et al., 2011, p. 5). For example, attorneys adjust voir dire, witness questioning, evidence presentation, and request jury instructions and admonishments to jurors to not bring preconceptions about CSI into deliberations (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009, 2011, pp. 29–31; Mancini, 2011, pp. 156–157; Robbers, 2008, p. 91; Shelton et al., 2011). Indeed, this is what the Maricopa County Study showed: Prosecutors believed a CSI Effect existed and that that belief was causing them to alter their trial practices. Hence, the belief that there is a CSI Effect causes a second order effect. In light of the fact that CSI’s potential impacts more likely benefit the prosecution, this particular second order effect is oddly perverse: Attorneys and courts who attempt to correct for the nonexistent effects disadvantaging the prosecution, may reinforce or introduce into trial effects that advantage the prosecution and impede the defense (Cole, & Dioso-Villa, 2009, pp. 1370–1372; Mancini, 2011, p. 157; Smith et al., 2011, pp. 6–7).
Forensic crime procedurals are also credited with making science sexy and increasing the public’s interest in the field of criminal forensics (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 22–23; Weaver, Salamonson, Koch, & Porter, 2012, p. 382). Members of academia and law enforcement opine that by increasing the profile of science-related careers, CSI has led more students to be interested in such careers (Weaver et al., 2012, p. 382).
Millennials entering college now perceive criminal forensics as a viable career choice (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 22–23). Much like law schools experienced a surge in applications during the heyday of LA Law (Pfau, 1995), universities have experienced a dramatic increase in applications to forensic science (Barthe et al., 2013, pp. 15–16; Lovgren, 2004) and criminal justice programs (Cole and Dioso-Villa, 2007, p. 443, n. 36; Maurantonio, 2012, pp. 15–16). Notably, enrollments in forensic and police science programs continue to increase as interest in other science programs wanes (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, pp. 22–23; Mardis, 2006, p. 13).
At the same time, institutions of higher education see degree and certificate programs aimed at these prospective enrollees to be money-makers. Indeed, as CSI’s global popularity has increased, so have academic programs promising to prepare students for exciting careers in forensic science and law enforcement (Weaver et al., 2012, p. 382). There are now hundreds of such programs and degrees (associates, bachelor’s, master’s, PhD) in colleges in the United States alone (Lovgren, 2004, p. 2).
It is fair to say that CSI has contributed to these trends. Researchers investigating the factors that influence college students to major in criminal justice found that students considered the real-world relevance of the major and future employment opportunities, but that these perceptions were mediated by what they gleaned from television (Barthe et al., 2013, pp. 18–19). In some instances, students’ career aspirations aligned with their interests in television programing featuring criminal justice and forensic science careers of that type (Barthe et al., 2013, pp. 22–23; Weaver et al., 2012, pp. 388–389).16 This is not to suggest that television causes students to enroll in these courses of study, but rather that they enjoy a symbiotic relationship in which each contributes to and reinforces perceptions of the other (Maurantonio, 2012, pp. 15–16; Weaver et al., 2012, pp. 389–390). A study of college students enrolled in forensic science programs in Australia showed that 98% believed that television portrayed the profession as exciting and positive (92.9%), but (approximately 80%) thought they were unrealistic in their presentation of science and gave the public the wrong idea about what forensic technicians actually do (Weaver et al., 2012).
Some college personnel believe CSI is a recruitment tool: Students who enroll because of an interest sparked by CSI are then exposed to a wider range of science careers of which they, otherwise, would have had no knowledge (Mardis, 2006, p. 13). This may improve a program’s applicant pool, which, in the long term, should improve the quality of individuals going into police forensics. Critics, however, warn that many students will not remain in these programs, because either the day-to-day reality of the work bears little resemblance to television’s portrayal of it or they harbor unrealistic expectations of the demands of the coursework (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011, p. 23; Weaver et al., 2012, p. 382). Graduates may also find that employment opportunities are not as abundant as anticipated. Nonetheless, in the context of exploring the impacts of television’s CSI genre, whether the net effect of the aforementioned academic programs and their students is positive or negative, is beside the point: Instead, what is relevant is that CSI almost certainly influences students’ choice to consider such careers and enroll in related academic programs. Ultimately, as students graduate from these programs and put their skills to vocational use, there is a positive trickle-down effect on criminal forensics investigations (Granberg-Rademacker & Bumgarner, 2009).
Fundamentally, understanding the CSI Effect requires distinguishing the mythology of it from the empirical evidence about it. In many ways, this reflects the distinction between fears and misunderstandings of the potential effects of television and empirical study and logical analysis of media texts.
The CSI Effect seems to be the latest, in a long line of television programs and movies, blamed for harming society and the justice system. This is not the first time that a concern about the legal system or juries has converged with media coverage to metastasize into a culturally known “fact,” and it will not be the last. Nevertheless, in light of the absence of evidence of substantiating anti-prosecution impacts, but the presence of evidence suggesting pro-prosecution effects, it is relevant to consider why belief in the CSI Effect persists. Some scholars opine that it is a combination of hindsight bias, scapegoating, and prosecutor lament when unexpectedly losing a case they expected to win (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2011; Podlas, 2007; Tyler, 2006a). Legal advocates are not inclined to blame a loss on their lack of skill and preparation or failure to accurately assess the strength of the evidence and countervailing explanations; rather, they naturally look to external explanations, such as blaming irrational jurors and the media that misled them. As people who believe in a CSI Effect discover others who believe in a “CSI Effect,” the belief becomes self-confirmatory. Over time, this belief can become “common knowledge” that substitutes for empirical proof.
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(1.) CBS aired the series finale September 27, 2015.
(3.) Investigators and prosecutors have said that CSI implied that “it is always possible to extract useful forensic evidence” (Panel, 2005, p. 87), and that crime scenes are pristine (Maurantonio, 2012, pp. 16–17): “On TV, it’s all slam-dunk evidence. . . . Now juries expect the same thing. . . .” (Roane, 2005, p. 49). Another early claim was that CSI created unreasonable expectations that police investigators would follow the script of CSI, and when the collection of evidence deviates from this script, jurors will be more critical of police than in the past (Lovgren, 2004).
(4.) It is somewhat ironic that members of an institution committed to ensuring that allegations are not blindly accepted as fact, but are subjected to scrutiny and demands of proof accept the “CSI Effect” as fact. Attorneys and judges, however, are not social scientists steeped in empirical methodologies, but fall prey to the same cognitive frailties and social influences that any other member of the public does.
(5.) New forms of media are often greeted by excitement, then forecast to cause some social ill, and subject of attempts to censor them. This pattern has held true for movies, pulp fiction novels, television, comic books, video games, and streaming entertainment, as well as types of law-related programming (Schmierbach, Boyle, Xu, & McLeod, 2011, pp. 307–308, 310).
(6.) Attorneys are also privy to a great deal of information of which the jury is unaware and does not factor into the verdict. Consequently, attorneys’ assessment of evidence includes different factors.
(7.) Cole and Dioso-Villa employ a somewhat different nomenclature (2007, pp. 447–448).
(8.) Bornstein’s (1999) review of the various forms of and modalities of presentation used in jury research shows that there is little difference between using real trials, transcripts, and other modalities of presentation.
(9.) Druckman and Bolsen (2011) explain that opinions about emergent technologies rely on heuristics and “gut reactions.” Therefore, acceptance of one type of emergent technology supplies the foundation for accepting other related types of technologies (2011, pp. 661–662).
(10.) Assuming arguendo that juries hold prosecutors to a higher burden of proof than in the past, that burden may, nonetheless, be less than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
(13.) Because it is typically the prosecution that introduces forensic evidence, it would typically be the prosecution’s proof that is enhanced.
(14.) It is possible that “Certainty of Guilt” was a tipping point: Viewers of more significant amounts of crime television were somewhat less certain of guilt. Maeder opined that very high levels of viewing may assist in developing a higher degree of skepticism (Maeder & Corbett, 2015, pp. 102–103).
(15.) One forensic witness, who testified for the prosecution in hundreds of cases, forged DNA and other test results. Another, who with her canine “forensics partner” had appeared on television news programs and at science seminars, faked and planted evidence (Roane, 2005, pp. 51–53).
(16.) To gain insight into the extent to which students integrated television portrayals into their perceptions of criminal justice and forensics professions, researchers asked students in an introductory criminal justice course to answer whether a set of statements regarding criminal and legal procedures were true or false, and compared the responses to the types of television programs the students preferred. Students preferring forensic and court shows were more prone to answer consistent with what was commonly seen on television (despite those portrayals being incorrect), whereas students expressing the least interest in television were not (and answered more questions correctly) (Barthe, Leone, & Lateano, 2013, pp. 19–20).