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, 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).
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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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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