Fact Sheet: Crime in the Media

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.

About the author: This article was co-authored. The primary (guest) author is Carmen Reid, who is a undergraduate student in forensic psychology at the University of British Columbia (Canada). The co-author and editor is Julia Shaw, EAPL-S co-president and Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia (Canada).

View this document in it's full glory by downloading the pdf here.


 

 

Remember to also read our controversies publication, "Should we be tough on crime?".

Context

 

 

 

 

Media portrayal of crime and criminal justice has become incredibly widespread in the last decade, with crime often considered both a source of news and entertainment. As a source of entertainment, crime and criminal justice have emerged as central themes across various sources of media. Particularly in television shows, portrayals of crime and criminal justice can be seen in everything from courtroom dramas to nightly news programs. Indeed, the popularity of crime shows has lead to some of television’s most enduring series, such as Law and Order and CSI.

Most individuals do not have any direct experience with the criminal justice system, so their only source of information on this topic is the media. Because of this, fictional and non-fictional portrayals of the criminal justice system on television shape and inform the public’s beliefs and attitudes about what the average criminal looks and behaves like (also known as criminal prototypes). They also shape the public’s understanding of the typical process for solving a crime (the investigative process), and how criminals should be punished (appropriate sentencing) (Dowler et al., 2006).

How Crime is Represented

 

 

 

 

Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, many crime dramas unfortunately contribute to misconceptions about how the criminal justice system works. Indeed, watching crime shows can lead to unrealistic expectations regarding both crime and procedural justice.

Crime dramas also serve to confuse the general public about what professionals in the criminal justice system actually do. Members of fictional criminal investigation teams often assume the multifaceted role of forensic technician, police investigator, and assistant to the district attorney. These fictional characters are charged with the complex task of conducting laboratory analyses of evidence, questioning witnesses, gathering potential suspects and sources of evidence, and aiding the district attorney in securing a conviction. This is an incredibly unrealistic portrayal of the individuals who work in the field of forensic psychology, who typically only assume one of these roles.

The CSI Effect

 

Particularly programs such as CSI also overstate the ability of “hard” evidence (also known as forensic evidence), such as fingerprints and DNA, to provide evidence of definite innocence or guilt (Trask, 2007). They often disregard other components of the investigative process, such as police questioning, despite these being equally valid to establishing guilt (Nolan, 2006). This over-reliance on forensic evidence, due to the importance of forensic science being dramatized by television crime dramas, is also known as the CSI effect.

The CSI effect can steer courtroom proceedings towards pro-prosecution or pro-defense decisions, depending on the nature of the evidence presented at trial. Two effects related to this have been demonstrated by the literature; the defendant’s effect and the strong prosecutor’s effect (Baskin, & Sommers, 2010; Cole, & Dioso-Villa, 2007). The defendant’s effect presents itself when there is no forensic evidence. When a jury is made up of individuals who spend a lot of time watching crime dramas, jury members are more likely to find the defendant not guilty if there is no forensic evidence presented at trial (Tyler, 2006). This is because jury members who watch crime dramas lean towards interpreting non-forensic evidence as too weak to warrant a conviction. On the other hand, the strong prosecutor’s effect implies that in the presence of forensic evidence, jurors who watch crime dramas may be more likely to convict the defendant than a jury who engages in lower crime drama viewing, regardless of how good the forensic evidence actually is.

Fostering Stereotypes

Portrayals of crime in the media also often capitalize on racial stereotypes, especially when reporting on criminal offences by minority offenders. For example, although the issue of domestic violence affects a large number of people throughout Canada, televised news media frequently portrays it as exclusively a problem among non-White communities. In addition to racial stereotypes, portrayals of criminality and victimization involving minority victims receive less attention than white victims (Dowler et al., 2006). These racial images, along with the drama-based perceptions of the criminal justice system, further bias the jury in fundamental ways.

Conclusion

In sum, while providing entertainment value, crime dramas have unintentionally cultivated inaccurate conceptions about the criminal justice system. Such misconceptions have far reaching implications for jury decision-making. Crime is often given an entertaining angle, and investigative procedures are presented as realistic even though their presentation is distorted or misrepresented. It is important for us to be aware of the lasting effects that media depictions of crime can have on us, and to inform ourselves (and those around us) about the differences between fact and fiction regarding the criminal justice system.

Quick summary

  • Most people have no contact with the criminal justice system, so they rely on the media to inform them about it
  • Crime is often represented in unrealistic ways
  • The CSI effect refers to the biasing effect that inaccurate media portrayals of forensic evidence can have on jurors
  • The media's portrayal of crime can foster stereotyping

Where can I get more information?

Information from the EAPL-S is available online, in PDF, or as paper brochures sent through the mail. If you would like to have EAPL-S publications, you can order hardcopies for a nominal fee through This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

References

  1. Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. D. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17, 19-52.
  2. Baskin, D. R., & Sommers, I. R. (2010). Crime-show viewing habits and public attitudes toward forensic evidence: The "CSI Effect" revisited. The Justice System Journal, 31(1), 97-113. Retrieved from http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/jusj31&collection =journals
  3. Berns, N. (2004). Framing the victim: Domestic violence, media, and social problems. New York: Aldine.
  4. Berns, N., & Schweingruber, D. (2007). When you’re involved, it’s just different. Violence Against Women, 13, 240-261.
  5. Cole, S. A., & Dioso-Villa, R. (2007). CSI and its effects: Media, juries, and the burden of proof. New England Law Review, 41, 435-470. Retrieved from http://newenglrev.com/
  6. Dowler, K., Fleming, T., & Muzzati, S. L. (2006). Constructing crime: Media, crime, and popular culture. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 48(6), 837-850.
  7. Eschholz, S., Mallard M., & Flynn, S. (2004). Images of prime time justice: A content analysis of "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order." Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 10: 161-180.
  8. Nolan, T. W. (2006). Depiction of the “CSI effect” in popular culture: Portrait in domination and effective affectation. New England Law Review, 41, 575-590. Retrieved from http://newenglrev.com/
  9. Podlas, K. (2009). The CSI effect and other forensic fictions. Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review, 27(2), 87-125. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.lmu. edu/elr/
  10. Trask, T. (2007, April). The “CSI Effect”: Popular culture’s effect on civil juries. Paper presented at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX. Abstract retrieved from http://www.defendingfoodsafety.com/uploads/file/ Trask%20-%20ABA%20-%20Popular%20Culture%20And%20Juries.pdf
  11. Tyler, T. R. (2006). Viewing CSI and the threshold of guilt: Managing truth and justice in reality and fiction. The Yale Law Journal, 115, 1050-1085. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/ stable/20455645

Fact Sheet Series Information

EAPL-S publications are in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without the permission from the European Association of Psychology and Law Student Society (EAPL-S). EAPL-S encourages you to reproduce them and use them in your efforts to improve awareness of issues in psychology, corrections and law. Citation of the European Association of Psychology and Law as a source is appreciated. However, using these materials inappropriately can raise legal or ethical concerns, so we ask you to use these guidelines:

  • EAPL-S does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services, and publications may not be used for advertising or endorsement purposes.
  • EAPL-S does not provide specific medical advice or treatment recommendations, legal action or referrals; these materials may not be used in a manner that has the appearance of such information.
  • EAPL-S requests that organizations not alter publications in a way that will jeopardize the integrity and "brand" when using publications.
  • Addition of EAPL and EAPL-S logos and website links may not have the appearance of EAPL-S endorsement of any specific commercial products or services or medical treatments or legal services.
If you have questions regarding these guidelines and use of EAPL-S publications, please contact the EAPL-S at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Overview of Fact Sheet topics covered to date