Television police and courtroom dramas often base their stories on real-life events; they rip their stories from the headlines. That surprises no one. What is surprising, though, is when the influence goes in the other direction – when reality is based on television shows.
Many courtroom prosecutors believe the mega-hit TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” has changed the real-life behavior of jurors. The DAs believe that people who watch CSI and other, similar shows in the crime-scene-investigation genre think the shows reflect the way police investigations really happen. When these TV viewers become jurors, they hold the police to impossible standards. If the real police don’t track down every last trace of fiber, the way the fictional police do, the jurors think the police have not done their job – or so the theory goes.
The theory is so widely believed by legal professionals and so often discussed in the press that it has gotten its own name – the CSI effect.
Whether the CSI effect actually exists is another question. But first, let’s look at how CSI glamorizes the work of forensic scientists:
* Pretty people messing around with ugly corpses *
Murdered corpses are disgusting. The day-to-day work of scientists takes place mostly inside their heads or in front of their computers and is boring to watch. Put the two together – something disgusting and something boring – and you get a hit television franchise? How can that be?
The trick, for the shows, is to tweak the reality before they serve it up to the viewers. CSI shows us quick shots of disgusting wounds – just enough to be titillating, but not enough to make most viewers reach for the remote. The scientists move around a lot and often use brightly colored visual aids.
And then there’s the soundtrack. It’s loud, it’s catchy, and it’s got a throbbing beat. It’s also hip and kind of alternative. The music almost turns the scenes of the forensic scientists doing their work into a music video.
And those scientists – they’re all hot; beautiful women, with salon-perfect hair and make-up, and handsome men. The kind of eye candy you’re not likely to see in your neighborhood crime lab.
The magic of TV transforms a job that, to spectators, would be boring and disgusting into something fascinating and thrilling. As Anthony Zuiker, the creator and executive producer of the CSI shows put it, in an interview with NPR, “Our job really is to make great television, first and foremost. And so, we have to, quote, ‘sex it up.’ “
All this glamour heightens viewer’s emotions, which makes them more likely to remember the scenes they watch and to have the scenes make a vivid impression.
* Science and magic *
On CSI, science seems to have mystical properties. In one episode, when an investigator told D.B. Russell (Ted Danson) that all he had to go on was blood, Russell answered, “blood is all you need.” It’s as if the whole world could be seen in a drop of blood. Russell then goes off to consult a woman he calls “the blood whisperer,” emphasizing the mystical powers of CSI’s oracles of the laboratory.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the woman is gorgeous and that she and Russell share a past.
* Recreating the past *
In a criminal trial, lawyers try to recreate the past to demonstrate what really happened. There is little certainty, though, which is why jurors convict based on believing the evidence proves the case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” They are not asked to find that the evidence proves the case with 100% certainty because that would usually be impossible.
On CSI, the past is shown through animations. One of CSI’s gorgeous, brainy scientists examines a piece of evidence, and in his or her infinite wisdom, knows what happened when the crime was committed. We, the viewers, see an animation – of a bullet whizzing through a brain, say – that dramatizes what is going on inside the scientist’s beautiful head.
The problem is that the animation looks so detailed and so certain, as if we were actually witnessing an event that happened in the past. But unless we are time travelers, that would be impossible.
* Fiction, meet reality *
It’s not a small wonder that CSI fans come into courtrooms with inflated ideas about the powers of science. If they hold actual crime investigators up to the glamorous, fictionalized standards they see on TV, the real investigators will come up short.
* But is the CSI effect real? *
Despite many legal professionals believing that the CSI effect is true, the evidence suggests otherwise. The Honorable Donald E. Shelton conducted a study, which found that while jurors do come into courtrooms with inflated expectations, they don’t actually base their verdicts on those expectations. This is good news for the legal system.
Author Byline: Tyler is a writer and marketer for USCharterService.com, home of Charter Cable and Internet