The Representation of Forensic Science on TV: Does It Help Catch a Killer, or Make You one?
by PerryVoyages on April 1, 2015 - 11:55am
In today’s television programs, many crime based TV shows are at the peak of what is being watched during night time television. This includes shows such as Castle, Criminal Minds, and the well-known CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to name a few. While these shows are entertaining for their viewers, there is a certain level of forensic evidence that is being presented in each program. In the shows mentioned previously, they most of the time, if not always, present a crime scene where the discovery of key pieces of evidence leads to the interrogation of a suspect.
As an individual who more often than not finds himself in front of the television watching crime based shows, I ask myself many questions that pertain to its content. Do situations like the ones presented on TV actually happen in real life? Do crime scene investigators find evidence as quickly as they do on TV? How are they able to figure out who is responsible for the crime committed if more often than not, these characters are basing their answer on personal theories? The question I ask most frequently is whether or not there are criminals who learn skills and techniques from watching these TV shows. Therefore, the issue I will be discussing is whether the representation of forensic science presented in the media is ethical and what effect it has on both jurors and members of society who watch criminal based television.
Many crime based television shows nowadays almost always show evidence being attained that helps find the primary suspect. However, the physical evidence left behind, is either mentioned aloud between investigators, similar to how it is done in Castle, or portrayed in flashbacks found mostly in CSI but occasionally in Criminal Minds. These flashbacks tend to recreate the committed crime and allow viewers to see the error of the perpetrator’s ways. Likewise, it allows for any juror who watches these types of shows to have a better understanding of what evidence must be presented in court and whether the evidence is relevant to the accusation. However, it also allows for any criminal who is watching these TV shows to learn techniques on how they may better get away with any crime they plan on committing. An article on The Economist has noted that many of the “techniques used in crime shows are, after all, at least grounded in truth. Bleach, which destroys DNA, is now more likely to be used by murderers to cover their tracks. The wearing of gloves is more common, as is the taping shut—rather than the DNA-laden licking—of envelopes” (The “CSI effect”). This raises the issue of whether or not it is ethical to show forensic science in the media. On one hand, it may have a positive outcome believes Honourable Donald E. Shelton in his article “The ‘CSI effect’: Does It Really Exist?” where he claims – in a survey on the expectation of evidence presented in court – that “CSI viewers had higher expectations about scientific evidence that was more likely to be relevant to a particular crime than did the non-CSI viewers” (4). On the other hand, while it is fascinating for viewers, especially those interested in criminology to get a behind the scenes view of what goes on, it distorts reality. Furthermore, as The Economist states, it enables criminals with the knowledge of techniques on how to avoid getting caught. Additionally, it often leads to members of the jury to have higher expectations of the evidence presented in court. Honourable Shelton claims he once heard a district attorney comment on the ‘CSI effect” saying that “Jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case. They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television” (2).
In order to discuss whether the representation of forensic science represented in the media is ethical, it is important to understand both consequences that arise from doing so. I have mentioned both the positive and negative outcomes that transpire with the representation of forensic evidence in the media. To summarize, the positive outcome is that jurors are better informed during court and may exonerate a defendant if they are found not guilty as a result of the evidence asked by the jury. However the negative outcome is that jurors have an unrealistic expectation of the justice system and more often than not demand for DNA testing for just about every case (Honourable Shelton, 2). Furthermore, it allows any criminals who watch these shows to learn techniques on how to get rid of evidence. So I leave this debate up to you to decide. With the information I have provided you in the post above, do you believe that it is morally ethical to represent forensic science in the media?
Honourable Shelton, Donald E., “The ‘CSI effect’: Does It Really Exist?” National Institute of Justice. Department of Justice, 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
“The “CSI effect”.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited 2015, 22 Apr. 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.
For More Information on Castle, Criminal Minds, or CSI
Criminal Minds: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0452046/?ref_=nv_sr_1
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0247082/?ref_=nv_sr_2