Fear in Writing: The CSI Effect

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Friday, March 5, 2010

The CSI Effect

"Do you watch CSI?"

"Can you hold the District Attorney to the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or will you hold him to some higher standard created because of shows like CSI, that doesn't really exist?"
My husband had jury duty on Tuesday.  He made it into voire dire but not onto a jury.  The question series about is something the ADA actually asked potential jurors.  My husband says it caught him off guard, but the more he thought about it, the more it bothered him.

"What standard is beyond reasonable doubt, anyway?" he asked me last night.  He understood the premise that shows like CSI have changed the way people see DNA and other evidence, but he did not understand the emphasis the ADA placed on this phenomenon.  It seems a quick explanation of television vs. reality could have done the job, rather than asking thirty people their viewing habits.

To us, this question validates the science seen on CSI more than it deflects attention.  I realize not every crime scene tech busts down doors and researches traces of Festuca longifolia (Fescue grass!)But in placing this question inside voire dire, it seems to me the legal community is recognizing the impossibility of their jobs: proving beyond a reasonable doubt.

A popular term has been created to refer to viewers' reliance on TV science: the CSI Effect.  Click the link for more information, but the basic idea is that shows such as CSI (but not limited to) are "purported to skew public perceptions of real-world forensic science, as well as the behavior of criminal justice system actors."  A scholarly article in ASU's Jurimetrics poses the hypothesis that CSI and its spinoffs affect trials either by (a) burdening the prosecution by creating greater expectations about forensic science than can be delivered or (b) burdening the defense by creating exaggerated faith in the capabilities and reliability of the forensic sciences."

While it may be questionable whether each person watching the show can separate fact from fiction, there are real world affects happening right here in North Carolina.  I work on and off for News 14 Carolina (a statewide, 24-hour news station).  In 2007, we reported on a local private school adding a criminal science degree because of the popularity created by television shows like CSI and Crossing Jordan.
The brief glimpse my husband gave me made me realize how much of my information does come from literature and television.  My background is in journalism, so I do have exposure to police and legal procedures, but what am I really basing my plot theories on?  How much firsthand knowledge do you have?  Do you have sources you trust for help in scientific fields?  How much of a role does The Law and police procedure play in your MS?

(I have mentioned it many times, but a great source for police information is Police Procedure & Investigation by Lee Lofland.  He is a former detective who wrote this specifically for writers.  Lee is now working on his own detective fiction and living right here in North Carolina.  You can also find him in the dais at some mystery & writers' conventions.)

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  1. Fortunately no law or forensics in my book. But I did have a source for fighter jet realism.

  2. I think that it's a little dangerous when jurists think they can interpret forensic data in a courtroom!

    I was called for jury duty last year. The defense attorney wanted nothing to do with a mystery writer on his jury, so I was dismissed. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Ooh, cool, Alex! If you ever need more info on that, my husband was an Air Force Captain and is a private pilot/flight instructor. Not that you need the help now!

    Elizabeth- I told my husband to tell them his wife was a journalist. That usually does it! I can only imagine what they thought of your creative impulses and how you would "sway" the jury. :)

  4. If I'm called for jury duty, I'll try that, as an author of crime fiction. On the other hand, if I serve, I might pick up a few useful ideas...
    I found you from your comment on the Curzon blog where I post regularly (ahem) fairly regularly... I'll definitely be visiting your blog again. It's so interesting, I'm not sure why I haven't discovered you before now.
    As for the serious issue of 'beyond reasonable doubt' - the word 'reasonable' is used in this way in so many contexts and seems to mean nothing more than 'we leave this to you to decide/interpret/make up your own mind'. It's not ideal, but I suppose no one has come up with a better idea yet. It's certainly a tough issue.

  5. ps And the wording also assumes that most people are reasonable... I could name a few who aren't!

  6. Ha! I'd say yes to get out of it!

    That's so funny!

  7. That aspect never turns up in my books, but I did a lot of research for other aspects, such as college basketball and Olympic swimming.

    And they can dis CSI all they want - I still love the show!

  8. So, I don't have much personal knowledge as I'm still sort of young but I do have to say that according to both my forensic anthropology professor and my sister (who is a evidence tech) no crime scene tech every busts down doors like they do in CSI, at least in their experience.
    I've actually been thinking a lot about this CSI effect because for my forensics class, we have to watch Bones or CSI and evaluate a single episode. I think in a way shows like CSI have made people think that all sorts of tests are possible and all of those are run with every case, when that probably isn’t the case. The cost of alone of running some of the tests seen on TV probably makes them a rarity. I don’t know much about this topic yet but everyone’s responses have been interesting. (I'm in no way dissing CSI or Bones - CSI was one of the very few shows I watched before I stopped watching TV all together).

  9. I must admit I've never understood the American obsession with all those CSI and law shows. Those shows are even broadcast on the national television in my country, but it was never my cup of tea.
    It seems that people like to watch blood, killings, murders, crime ... there's something very disturbing in such taste of the audience.

  10. PS, Chels, I've squeezed in your banner in my sidebar :)

  11. As a scientist, I've always been bugged by CSI's amazing lab budget and the way the technicians instead of the *detectives* do all the crime solving. The Hum Vees really get me. Of course, I have a friend who does forensics and she says she does get to drive a great car.

    BTW, my husband really wanted jury duty, but they wouldn't take him because of his dyslexia. So unfair!