Crime-Show-Viewing Habits and Public Attitudes toward Forensic Evidence: The "Csi Effect" Revisited*

Article excerpt

The present study assesses whether watching crime shows affects attitudes toward forensic evidence and whether these attitudes result in a predisposition toward conviction or acquittal in a criminal trial. Data came from a telephone survey of a random sample of 1,201 California registered voters. The results indicate that, independent of criminal justice experiences, sociodemographics, and other background characteristics, crime-show-viewing habits affect potential jurors' pretrial attitudes and predispositions regarding scientific evidence and various forms of testimony. However, pretrial attitudes do not affect respondents' beliefs about their willingness to convict/acquit based on the presence/absence of forensic evidence. Instead, crime show viewing has a direct effect on this belief.

During the past twenty years, forensic science has made tremendous strides in incorporating scientific breakthroughs into its practice (e.g., DNA typing, physical-evidence databases, increasingly advanced instrumentation). At the same time, the public has experienced greater exposure to the use of forensic evidence in the criminal justice process through the popular media. Television programs such as CSi, Forensic Files, Law and Order, and Without a Trace, among others, have large viewing audiences. Newspapers and television news shows report on well-publicized trials (e.g., OJ. Simpson, Robert Blake, Scott Peterson, Phil Spector), often commenting on the use (or absence) of forensic evidence. Awareness of the achievements of the Innocence Project and the employment of DNA typing in gaining death-row exonerations has increased, as have Internet blogs dedicated to forensic issues. Thus, the general public is treated to a daily barrage of "reality" and "fictional" accounts of forensic issues.

The proliferation of crime and justice topics throughout all forms of media has led some to suggest that a "CSI Effect" has taken hold of the public. It has been argued that watching television shows, such as CSI, has influenced the general public's attitudes, expectations, and decision making related to the use of scientific evidence in jury trials. The impact of the presumed CSI Effect has reverberated throughout various sectors of society, with attorneys reporting changes in trial strategies so as to counteract it (Watkins, 2004; Gather, 2004) and law journals devoting issues or running ads for seminars on this topic (such as seminars presented by the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland School of Law in 2006 and the Brooklyn Law School's "Science for Judges" seminars in 2003-07). The present study adds to a growing body of research that explores whether watching crime shows affects public attitudes towards forensic evidence and whether these attitudes result in a predisposition toward conviction or acquittal in a criminal trial.


Only a handful of empirical studies have assessed the CSI Effect. One such study by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (2005) found overwhelming support for the Effect. The authors questioned prosecutors about their perceptions of jurors' attitudes. Prosecutors reported that jurors expected detailed forensic evidence and that jurors, in fact, penalized the state by acquitting defendants when such evidence was not available. Similarly, Watkins's survey of fifty-three attorneys in Florida (2004) also attributed jurors' exaggerated expectations concerning scientific evidence to watching crime shows. Arguing the difficulty of questioning jurors directly, Watkins assumed that lawyers' attitudes and television-viewing practices served as proxies for the general public and therefore, by extension, jurors. Watkins reported that Florida attorneys had even started modifying trial tactics to preempt what they felt were jurors' inflated expectations concerning the presentation of scientific evidence during criminal trials. Although prosecuting attorneys may be observing changes in juror attitudes, Watkins provided no evidence that these changes emanated from crime show viewing nor that they correlated with the choice of verdict. …