Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Josh Berman, Executive Producer on C.S.I.

The C.S.I. Effect

Some forensic professionals nevertheless insist that the show is entirely unrealistic.  One can find discussion boards online dissecting the methods, motives, and timing of the cases, as well as the fact that crime scene technicians and forensic scientists are not detectives.  The debate has reached the point where a phrase, "the C.S.I. Effect," has entered the language.

The cast of C.S.I. after an awards ceremony
The cast of C.S.I. after an awards ceremony

Through a proliferation of forensic television programs, the mass media has offered the public an education of sorts about forensic science, with a three-fold effect.  Until recently, a key issue in the legal process has been how to translate scientific testimony to laypeople on a jury, but the forensic-based television shows have made potential jurors somewhat savvier about scientific methods and evidence.  As a result, they often expect it in the courtroom and may even look for results that cannot be produced or techniques that may not exist.  Thus, the fear among prosecutors is that juries may translate testimony from technologically unsophisticated investigations into "reasonable doubt" and decline to convict.   

There's no evidence that the phenomenon actually exists, but the critics allege that thanks to programs like C.S.I., people on juries erroneously believe they know all about forensic science and investigation, and their error can impact the outcome of a case.  In truth, even if this downside exists, there's also an upside.  Juries are now more interested in the physical evidence and the forensic experts, so they listen and understand.  They may even hold investigators to a higher degree of accountability, which certainly has its benefits.

So the so-called C.S.I. Effect, no matter what it may cause, is simply another part of our television culture.  People constantly make decisions based on what they think they know, even though they may be wrong.  And it's not as if every episode has a successful resolution.  In fact, Berman is aware that life itself doesn't always work and questions do often remain unanswered, so he tries to keep that quality in the show.  In addition, the strange cases the writers devise do have their equivalent in real life, no matter how bizarre they may get. People are full of surprises.

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