Entertainment media is a major part of American culture, specifically television entertainment. Studies have been conducted in order to determine the ways in which television influences our thinking, and one such theory resulting from the research was developed in the 1960’s and labelled “cultivation”. Cultivation “affirmed that people who are avid television viewers tend to accept the content distributed through the television media and embrace the material as factual reality.”[1] The idea that people will unquestionably accept what they watch on television to be fact may be overreaching, however, it does seem clear that media- whether it be entertainment television, social media, the news, the radio- all play a role in influencing their audiences’ understanding and perception of the topics being portrayed. This idea of cultivation displays itself in Americans’ perceptions of crimes as determined by their viewing of crime-based entertainment.

The topic of crime remains extremely popular in the entertainment business, reflected by television viewer ratings; “Eight crime dramas, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its sibling programs, made it into the top 20 shows last October. On one Thursday that month, 27 percent of all American televisions that were turned on were turned to CSI.”[2] The popularity of crime shows among the American public has been explained by Time as, “a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity.”[3] Additionally, they claim that people are intrigued by crime because, “it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us-fear.”[4] Regardless of why people are interested in crime television shows, the reality is that Americans are watching them with consistency. Though watching television can be considered a harmless and passive activity, when viewing television’s influence through the lens of cultivation it is clear that Americans use crime-based entertainment media as their source of information on the investigative processes following a crime.

According to an article written by Kristina Ericksen, the CSI Effect is a phenomenon discovered by prosecutors that illustrates how crime shows, like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, alters jurors’ courtroom expectations.[5] In turn, this makes it more difficult to convict the defendants with solid evidence. Ever since these crime shows have become popular, judges have wanted more and more evidence to convict someone, even when the truth behind the fingerprints is right in front of them. Because these television programs have been widely shown around the world, the CSI Effect has influenced American jurors to expect more forensic evidence to convict defendants of crimes.

Forensic science is any science that is used in the legal system that applies to civil proceedings and criminal cases. Forensic scientists work with the investigators at the crime scene to collect evidence and traces to help determine more information from the crime scene. Although strict procedures must be followed during real-life crime scene investigations, television programs don’t usually show the realistic steps of the investigation process. These crime scene investigations programs often shape the public’s expectations of what a true crime scene investigation looks like.[6]

According to the Microbiology Society, forensic scientists must follow strict procedures when collecting evidence such as bodily fluids, trace materials, fiber identification, toxicology, and fingerprints.[7] The first step of any crime scene investigation is to ensure the safety of the scene and mark off any hazardous areas that can influence the collection of specimens. Forensic scientists need to outline the area of investigation to ensure that no evidence is destroyed by medical, fire or coroner respondents. The second and most important step of any crime scene investigation is to establish security of the scene to ensure that everyone that enters the scene is documented. This helps investigators know exactly who has stepped foot on the crime scene that could have obstructed or collected evidence. The next important step in the crime scene investigation procedure is to plan, communicate and coordinate with all persons investigating the crime scene. Investigators want to generate an initial hypothesis of the crime to help the crime scene team expect what evidence to look for. This ensures that no evidence is looked-over and missed while collecting data, and allows the team to call in backup if a more specialized resource is required to gather evidence.

Before collecting any evidence, the team needs to walk through the crime scene and document any initial observations they notice; position of furniture, areas of interest, smells, and the temperature; these observations are typically photographed and documented on paper for future references. This step guarantees that every detail of the crime scene is documented in case something was to be obstructed during the collection of evidence. Once the scene becomes safe and the walkthrough has been completed, the following initiative is to collect the evidence from the crime scene. Proper procedures must be followed while containing the evidence found at the scene so that it can be tested in the future. Investigators also take more photographs of the evidence and sketch diagrams that would provide more information of the evidence collected. As a control step, investigators will run through the crime scene one final time to ensure that all useful data has been properly collected from the crime scene. The final step of any crime scene investigation is to create an inventory log of all evidence collected during the investigation process. This documentation will follow the crime all the way into the courtroom until someone has been convicted. All information from this log ensures that the evidence collected at the crime scene is accounted for.[8]

Once every step of the procedure has been completed, forensic scientists can then use this evidence to help convict the defendant involved. This information is most important in any criminal case because it provides hard evidence to convict the guilty.

Many current crime scene investigation television programs falsely demonstrate the proper legal procedures of real crime scene investigations. These programs often show investigators quickly running through crime scenes and improperly collecting evidence. This gives jurors a false idea of how the investigation process actually works. Many jurors today expect DNA evidence from every crime scene using top-notch technology that has not actually been developed.[9] The CSI Effect has caused jurors to expect more hard evidence than needed to convict someone.

An image depicting a crime scene investigation that took place on CSI Miami: Crime Scene Investigation. This photograph illustrates the false procedures that take place on television programs. 

There are several effects of using fiction television as a basis for understanding real-life processes following a crime, a main one being peoples’ misunderstanding of the forensic procedures. The danger of viewers’ act of interchanging fiction with fact is the unrealistic expectations that are placed on the criminal justice system, as well as the data processing of forensic evidence. Crime television programs have been identified as the culprits for giving, “the impression that forensic laboratories are fully staffed with highly trained personnel, stocked with a full complement of state-of-the-art instrumentation and rolling in the resources to close every case in a timely fashion.”[10] The interpretation of forensic science given by crime television shows is not all that accurate, as in reality there are not enough employees to keep up with the increasing demands being placed on labs for data analysis.

An additional effect of using crime-based entertainment as a basis of understanding the forensic and legal investigative processes is the previously defined phenomenon, the CSI effect, which is “the belief that television crime shows are affecting decisions made in the courtrooms from jurors.”[11] According to the CSI effect, jurors are imposing unrealistic expectations on crime scene evidence in order to prosecute a crime; thus, the aforementioned increasing demand for data analysis from forensic labs can be attributed to this phenomenon. One such example of the increasing demand for crime scene evidence occured in Virginia, where “in 1989 Virginia labs processed only a few dozen cases. The number of cases being submitted this year has ballooned into the thousands.”[12] This increasing demand for forensic evidence ties to the legal proceedings following a crime, as jurors assume that evidence is the unarguable proof of a defendant’s guilt.

The influence of the CSI effect was studied as it impacted New York State prosecutors, and there appeared to be a relationship between jurors’ increased demand for forensic evidence and their likelihood of persecuting the individual on trial. As stated by the study, “In some instances, legal employees had to practice ‘defensive investigations’ using forensic evidence, not because it was involved in the case, but rather to satisfy the intrigue of the jury.”[13] According to the research study- despite consistent debate about whether the CSI effect is real- prosecutors are changing their tactic in the courtroom in order to account for the jurors misconceptions about the investigative crime procedures. Another aspect of the study states, “I have found jurors now expect more evidence than they did before. They want to see DNA testing in every case. They expect police officers to fingerprint every square inch of a crime scene. In a way, it feels as though our burden of proof is raised; non-forensic evidence must be much stronger in the absence of forensic evidence”[14] Thus, not only are forensic analysts facing more pressure, but prosecutors have to alter their arguments in order to convince jurors of the defendant’s guilt when facing a lack of crime scene evidence as well.

Though forensic evidence is not always necessary in order to justifiably deem an individual to be guilty (such as by eyewitness testimony), it arguably goes further in convincing a jury of guilt. Crime’s ever present influence and intrigue among the American public can be summarized by the statement, “Crime remains an unfortunate, yet integrated part of American culture, not as hopelessly interwoven as the media would have use believe, but regardless, a part of life (or at least the evening news).”[15] Regardless of the degree to which the CSI effect truly explains entertainment television’s impact, the influence of television on the public’s understanding of crime remains inevitable; the extent to which the legal and forensic processes change based on the cultural influences of entertainment media will be determined as they occur.

Ethics is a huge part of crime scene investigations, and law enforcement officers going through these processes are expected to investigate the case with ethics and morals in their minds. Police and forensic specialists are obliged to preserve the integrity of their investigations. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences provides no guidelines for crime scene ethics or retention of items from former crime scenes.[16] Without these guidelines, there are no rules that regulate whether or not someone can keep, remove, or sell anything found during a crime scene investigation.

Ethics is a huge part of crime scene investigations, and law enforcement officers going through these processes are expected to investigate the case with ethics and morals in their minds. Ethics can be defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity”.[17] Police and forensic specialists are obliged to preserve the integrity of their investigations. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences provides no guidelines for crime scene ethics or retention of items from former crime scenes.[18] Without these guidelines, there are no rules that regulate whether or not someone can keep, remove, or sell anything found during a crime scene investigation which is why it is so important to use ethics in your practices.

What exactly does ethics mean for a Crime Scene Officer (CSO)? As a CSO it is your role first and foremost to help the public and to understand that you are called to a crime scene because something is wrong. Never “jump the gun” on a case because you cannot force evident to fit someone’s ideas. Go into each case unbiased, and let the evidence speak for itself. Officers must be aware that they are not able to let their personal feelings interrupt objective, critical, and reflective consideration of the case.[19] It is important to approach each scene with the attitude that you’re there to help the victim(s), assume that each case is going to a jury trial, act professionally, take the time to process each scene, and ultimately solve the case.[20] There is also a set of directions on how to process each scene professionally. It starts with stressing the importance of documenting everything thoroughly using photography, videography, diagrams, and sketches. Then, it is important to record all information about evidence that is found on the Evidence Custody Sheet. You should list each piece of evidence with its item number, what was done with it, where it was found, etc. and the item number must correspond with the number found on the photograph of the item and the number entered on any evidence collection bag. When appropriate, you must swab and collect evidence in that way. One of the most important things to remember as a CSO is to not ignore evidence because you do not think that it can be processed,  recognize your limits. Dick Warrington, a crime scene consultant, stressed that “It’s far better to call in fingerprint or other experts than to lose evidence because of your pride”.[21]

A large part of ethics is being morally right which brings out the idea of whether or not evidence from crime scenes should be released to the public before court. A conversation between Katherine Biber, a law professor, and Peter Doyle, a researcher of crime scene photographs, joined a conversation about the ethics at crime scenes.[22] The biggest reason why evidence should not be released to the public, especially before court, is because people will start to question and try to get involved with the investigation even though they should not. This is especially due to the theory of the “CSI Effect”. After watching a couple of CSI shows, the public thinks that they can solve the crime and their interference can actually do more harm than good. Crime scene photos also are a big part of being able to properly, and ethically, solve a case due to its authenticity. Some of the ethical rules behind crime scenes is to not touch or interfere with anything and leave it exactly how it is. A lot of times pictures can be confusing because it becomes difficult to realize what exactly you’re looking for. In response to this statement, Peter Doyle said “I’m so good at unpacking them, decoding them- you can see how they manipulate us, you can see the mythic underpinnings”.[23] Many people in the public if photographs were released would attempt to make a bigger deal of something than it needed to be rather than letting the professionals who are trained to look at these photographs figure it out for themselves.

Crime scene photos and other evidence being released to the problem also brings out the ethical problem in the “CSI Effect”. Reality and fiction have begun to blur with crime magazine TV shows like 48 Hour Mystery, American Justice, and Dateline NBC.[24] These shows portray actual cases, but extensively edit the content for a dramatic effect. Also, crime fiction TV drama shows like Law and Order, Criminal Minds, CSI promote plots that are “ripped from the headlines”. It has been proven that watching shows like this cause jurors to wrongfully acquit guilty defendants when no scientific evidence has been presented. Donald Shelton, a felony trial judge for the past 17 years, recalls that he once heard a juror complain that the prosecution had not done a thorough job because “they didn’t even dust the lawn for fingerprints”. These shows have caused a rise in the unreasonable expectations for evidence that is presented during a trial. Many jurors compare cases that they are in trial for to ones that they hear about and watch on TV. Some statistics that support how the “CSI Effect” is real in court cases are as follows: 46% of jurors expect to see some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case, 22% expect to see DNA evidence in every criminal case, 36% expect to see fingerprint evidence in every criminal case, 32% expect to see ballistic or other firearms lab evidence in every criminal case.[25]

 

Bria Bryant

Kayla Bortoff

Lauren Meyer

[1] Erickson, Elizabeth. Perceptions of the CSI-Effect by New York State Prosecutors and Forensic Science Requests at Trial. Northcentral University: Proquest Dissertations Publishing, 2015. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1759209998?accountid=14244.

[2] Houck, Max M. “CSI: Reality.” Scientific American 295, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–89. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26068885. (pg. 85)

[3] Bonn, Scott . “Why We Are Drawn to True Crime Shows.” Time. TIME, January 8, 2016. http://time.com/4172673/true-crime-allure/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kristina Ericksen, 7 Ways the CSI Effect is Altering Our Courtrooms, (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/justice-studies/blog/ways-csi-effect-is-altering-our-courtrooms/

[6] Michael Roberts, How the CSI Effect Influences American Jurors, (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/csi-effect-1669447

[7] Lorna Dawson/ Chris Gannicliffe, Managing the Myths, CSI Effect in Forensic Science, (2017). Retrieved from: https://microbiologysociety.org/publication/past-issues/microbiology-in-popular-culture/article/managing-the-myths-the-csi-effect-in-forensic-science.html

[8] National Forensic Science Technology Center, A Simplified Guide to Crime Scene Investigation, (2013). Retrieved from: http://www.forensicsciencesimplified.org/csi/how.html

[9] Donald Shelton, The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist?, (2008). Retrieved from: https://www.nij.gov/journals/259/pages/csi-effect.aspx

[10] Houck, Max M. “CSI: Reality.” Scientific American 295, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–89. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26068885.

[11] “The CSI Effect.” Crime Museum. Crime Museum, 2017. https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/forensic-investigation/the-csi-effect/.

[12] Houck, Max M. “CSI: Reality.” Scientific American 295, no. 1 (July 2006): 84–89. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26068885.

[13] Erickson, Elizabeth. Perceptions of the CSI-Effect by New York State Prosecutors and Forensic Science Requests at Trial. Northcentral University: Proquest Dissertations Publishing, 2015. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1759209998?accountid=14244.

[14] Ibid, 25.

[15] Durnal, Evan W. Crime Scene Investigation (as Seen on TV). University of Central Missouri: Forensic Science International, 2010. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forsciint.2010.02.015.

[16] Rogers, Tracy L. “Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenirs, Teaching Material, and Artifacts.” Journal of Forensic Sciences49, no. 2 (April 2004): 1-5. Accessed April 8, 2019. doi:10.1520/jfs2003287.

[17] “Ethic.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethic.

[18] Rogers, Tracy L. “Crime Scene Ethics: Souvenirs, Teaching Material, and Artifacts.” Journal of Forensic Sciences49, no. 2 (April 2004): 1-5. Accessed April 8, 2019. doi:10.1520/jfs2003287.

[19] McCartney, Steve, and Rick Parent. Ethics in Law Enforcement. April 17, 2015. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://opentextbc.ca/ethicsinlawenforcement/chapter/4-4-ethical-issues-during-an-investigation/.

[20] Warrington, Dick. “Ethics at the Crime Scene.” Forensic Magazine. June 14, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.forensicmag.com/article/2015/09/ethics-crime-scene.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Biber, K., Doyle, P., & Rossmanith, K. (2013). PERVING AT CRIME SCENES: Authenticity, ethics, aesthetics: A conversation. Griffith Law Review, 22(3), 804-814. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1549242682?accountid=14244

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shelton, Donald E. “The CSI Effect: Does It Really Exist?” PsycEXTRA Dataset, 2008. Accessed April 8, 2019. doi:10.1037/e444972008-001.

[25] Ibid.