Media representation of criminal proceedings manipulates deliberations

Known as the CSI-Effect, the media’s representation of criminal proceedings manipulates and distorts the deliberations made by juries ‘ resulting in unrealistic expectations of contemporary forensic science. The CSI-Effect has evolved and perpetuated through the emergence of popular crime dramas, such as CSI, NCIS, Bones and Criminal Minds that obscure the juries’ perspective of authentic, credible forensic science. Consequently, juries now perceive forensic evidence as, ‘objective, reliable and infallible’. (Wise, 2010, p. 384) This has resulted in an increased demand for prosecution to produce viable and tangible forensic evidence, in order to satisfy the high standard of proof in criminal proceedings. Jurors therefore, fail to distinguish between the media’s stylized portrayal of forensic science and the current limitations and restrictions of forensics within the legal framework. Jurors are now susceptible to the unrealistic view that forensic testing is the most superior, probative form of evidential proof and therefore, afford greater reliability to expert witnesses and examiners. Juries may demand forensic testing or evidence examination in unnecessary cases without regard to the time or financial restrictions placed on lab facilities and testing resources. Similarly, jurors now expect that current forensic experts have access to similar advanced technology and resources as investigators portrayed in televised crime dramas. As the media’s representation of crime fiction continues to inaccurately inform juries’ perspectives ‘ the role of forensic science in the criminal justice system will remain obscured and misinterpreted.

Creation of the CSI-Effect

The CSI-Effect represents the relationship between popular crime television programs and the deliberations made by juries in criminal court proceedings. The media’s portrayal of crime fiction can be observed through programs including, CSI, Bones, Forensic Files and Criminal Minds. As demonstrated by Nielson Media Research, the Top 10 American Broadcast TV Rankings between June 1st and June 7th, 2009 included Law and Order: SVU with 11,562000 viewers, alongside NCIS with 11,256000 viewers. (Nielson, 2009) Due to the CSI-Effect, jurors falsely associate the forensic capabilities presented in such programs as a reflection of current discipline standards and resources. Therefore, it is commonly assumed in court proceedings that all criminal offences can be resolved using forensic evidence. As argued by Mann, 2006, television as a highly influential form of mass media, has significantly shaped the public perception of the criminal justice system. ‘Many are convinced that in this modern age of forensic science, the ‘CSI effect,’ which refers to the hit CBS television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation gives jurors heightened and unrealistic expectations of how conclusively forensic science can determine innocence or guilt.’ (Mann, 2006, p. 211) The CSI-Effect relies heavily on the popularity of law-orientated television programs ‘ in accordance to the fictitious, unrealistic representation of forensic science and criminal investigation issues. The manner in which jurors now determine judgements and assess evidence in criminal proceedings has been irrevocably altered. Thus, the CSI-Effect has resulted in a severe distortion of the criminal investigative process and the extent to which credible, forensic evidence can be perceived by jurors in the legal framework.

Higher acquittal rates

The CSI-Effect has produced an elevated standard of proof in criminal proceedings for prosecution to present substantial forensic evidence to gain a conviction. As supported by Cole and Dioso-Villa, 2009, this is evidenced by heightened acquittal rates amongst juries, subsequent to the advent of crime dramas, such as CSI. Jurors now hold exaggerated views regarding the probative merit of forensic science. Therefore, in certain situations the verdict is dependent on forensic factors such as DNA typing, fingerprints, bloodstain pattern analysis and ballistics. Mann, 2006 discusses the development of forensic evidence in comparison to the prosecution’s traditional reliance on witness testimonies and statements. The media’s concentration on the infallibility of forensic science has resulted in juries affording the professional opinions and testimonies of expert witnesses more probative value. Due to the CSI-Effect, jurors seek ‘slam-dunk evidence’ (Podlas, 2009, p. 432) in criminal trials and proceedings, as conveyed in relatively all crime dramas. ‘[The CSI-Effect] focuses on the way that CSI elevates scientific evidence to an unsupported level of certainty thus bolstering the prosecution’s case.’ (Podlas, 2009, p. 433) In reality, a large amount of obtainable evidence is difficult to achieve in certain criminal investigations. In the absence of material forensic evidence, jurors now perceive the arguments presented by prosecution to be invalid or inapplicable. The public is continually inundated with stylized portrayals of forensic science as flawless and precise. Accordingly, this has similarly affected the juries’ approach in demanding substantial and viable forensic evidence in order to successfully convict an individual.

‘Everyone’s an Expert’

The existence of the CSI-Effect has remained a highly contentious and controversial issue in the contemporary legal system. In specific regards to heightened acquittal rates amongst juries, Tyler (2006, p.74) hypothesised that, ‘[I]t is equally plausible to argue that watching CSI has, in fact, the opposite effect on jurors’increasing their tendency to convict defendants.’ Tyler claims that crime television programs, such as CSI aim to deliver certainty through the achievement of justice and ‘the ability of investigators to catch the bad guy.’ Tyler suggests that the juries’ aspirations for justice may also lead to leniency in conviction, rather than acquittal. (Tyler, 2006) However, Tyler failed to address the principal issue of forensic science and evidential proof within his criticisms of the CSI-Effect. The CSI-Effect has led to jurors with inflated perceptions of his/her own expertise in the field of forensic science. As supported by Wise, 2010 ‘ jurors consider themselves somewhat educated and informed in the forensic discipline through regular observation of the techniques and practices displayed in televised crime dramas. Consequently, jurors are highly likely to acquit a defendant if prosecutors fail to obtain reliable, probative forensic evidence to support the case.

Juror ignorance: limitations

As a consequence of the CSI-Effect, juries now hold unrealistic, impractical expectations of the field of forensic science in the existing legal system. The CSI-Effect is partially generated by the juries’ failure to appropriately consider the various limitations and restrictions placed on forensic testing facilities and resources. In many criminal proceedings, juries may demand forensic testing on particular evidence articles without regard to time availability or government financial expenses. This can directly influence the judicial deliberations made by juries in relation to reaching acquittals, based solely on the lack of forensic evidential proof. As supported by Heinrick, 2006, juries can demand unnecessary and costly testing for fingerprints, DNA and handwriting analyses. If such requirements are not fulfilled in criminal proceedings, jurors may be more willing to acquit accused individuals. Dissimilar to the fictional forensic techniques and procedures portrayed in crime dramas, forensic tests can take extended periods of time to complete and evidence analysis is an extremely long, time consuming process. (Heinrick, 2006) The Maricopia County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) recently conducted an extensive study into typical juror behaviour in relation to the CSI-Effect. MCAO conducted interview-based surveys on approximately 102 prosecutors with professional experience with juries in criminal trials. Each prosecutor was assessed on their previous experiences with juries whom they considered to ‘exhibit signs of the CSI-Effect’. (Heinrick, 2006) MCAO concluded that, ‘More than half (61%) of prosecutors who ask jurors if they watch forensic crime television shows feel jurors seem to believe the shows are mostly true.’ (Maricopia County Attorney’s Office, 2005)


The existence of the CSI-Effect in the contemporary legal system can be observed through juries’ obscured perceptions and understanding of credible forensic evidence. The ascending popularity and public appeal of fictional crime-orientated television programs has resulted in a heightened standard of proof for prosecution to obtain actual evidence in criminal proceedings. Consequently, acquittal rates amongst current juries have increased since the development of the CSI franchise. (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009) The CSI-Effect encompasses the growing reliance on forensic evidence in comparison to traditional prosecution approaches, such as witness testimonies. Arguments have emerged that debate the influence of the CSI-Effect. For example, Tyler argued that jurors would be more susceptible to convicting a defendant in criminal proceedings, due to the strong focus on the achievement of justice in crime dramas. (Tyler, 2006) However, jurors aim to acquire material, forensic evidence in criminal proceedings in order to support a conviction. If this element is not satisfied, it is highly probable that an acquittal will occur. (Wise, 2010) As a subsequent result of the CSI-Effect, jurors are more susceptible to demanding unnecessary and highly expensive forensic testing, with minimal regard or consideration for the limitations placed on forensic testing facilities and resources. Essentially, the CSI-Effect can be directly attributed with misleading jurors to, ‘reach [judicial conclusions] contrary to the interests of justice’. (MCAO, 2005) A large portion of the public audience misinterpret and misperceive programs such as, CSI or Criminal Minds as accurately portraying the capabilities of authentic, current forensic science. Thus, the CSI-Effect will remain a highly significant influence in the decision making and judicial deliberations of jurors in both a global and domestic context.

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