Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The CSI Effect: An Investigation into the Relationship between Watching Crime Shows and Forensic Knowledge

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The CSI Effect: An Investigation into the Relationship between Watching Crime Shows and Forensic Knowledge

Article excerpt

In August, 2011, 28-year-old Israeli-resident Daniel Moaz murdered his parents in an effort to acquire an early inheritance. After stabbing his mother and father, he fled to his own apartment. He then did something unusual--he returned to his parents' house later that night to scrape his DNA from under their fingernails and to clean the house with bleach. Where did Boaz get the idea to cover his forensic tracks? According to his testimony, he got the idea from watching a television show (Lidman, 2012).

In recent years, television shows centered on crime have captured the public's interest. In fact, five of the top ten scripted shows for the 2014-2015 season involved solving crimes and catching criminals (e.g., NCIS [National Criminal Investigative Service], NCIS: New Orleans, The Blacklist) (Schneider, 2015). Many of these shows feature a group of special agents, criminalists, or police officers using their investigative skills to solve seemingly difficult crimes. Collecting and analyzing evidence from the crime scene is a large component of these shows, and it appears that this focus on fingerprints, fibers, and numerous other types of forensic evidence appeals to a large number of television viewers. In fact, in 2012, CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) was named the most watched drama show in the world for the fifth time, amassing over 63 million viewers on five continents (Bibel, 2012); in 2014 and 2015, NCIS took the lead (Kondolojy, 2015).

Given that millions of people are exposed to these crime shows on a regular basis, it is reasonable to presume that the information presented on these shows, especially in regards to forensic evidence (e.g., fingerprints, hair fibers), may be impacting the criminal justice system in numerous ways. This "CSI effect" is alleged to be seen in the decisions of jurors (Baskin & Sommers, 2010), the behavior of attorneys (Stevens, 2008; Wise, 2010), and even in the practices of police (Huey, 2010) and crime labs (Stephens, 2007). In addition to these influences, however, there remains another facet of the CSI effect that has yet to be explored: Do these televised crime shows, with their focus on forensic evidence, have the potential to teach people how to better carry out and conceal crimes?

The CSI Effect

The "CSI effect" is the notion that watching crime-based television shows influences factors related to the criminal justice system. The effect has gained much attention, both in academic research and the popular media--both NPR (Rath, 2011) and The Economist ("The CSI Effect," 2010) have published stories on the effect.

The notion that people's attitudes and behaviors may be influenced by television has it roots in cultivation theory (Gerbner, 1969; Gerbner & Gross, 1976), one of the most popular theories in mass communication research (Bryant & Miron, 2004). Cultivation theory is centered on the idea that television helps shape one's reality of the world--the more one sees certain ideas, images, or values, the more they become incorporated into one's reality. Much of the research in this domain has focused on perceptions of crime and the criminal justice system. For instance, research has found a relationship between the amount of one's television exposure and a tendency to overestimate one's odds of being the victim of a crime (Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Heath & Petraitis, 1987). Although the original cultivation theory (Gerbner, 1969) focused on total hours spent viewing television, most recent research in the domain, including research conducted on the CSI effect, stresses the importance of considering the specific television shows being watched, as opposed to the total amount of time spent watching television in general (Ferris, 2011; Podlas, 2005). Indeed, more recent studies have found that the link between television viewing and overestimation of being a crime victim exists only for viewers who watch crime shows specifically (Dowler, 2003). …

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