Do TV shows influence life and society

output 5 2015 / Media Psychology Part 2: Media, News and Us

The CSI effect: how crime series influence our behavior

The CSI effect describes the effects of crime TV series on the viewer. For example, one claim is that such series inspires criminals and gives them suggestions on how to outsmart law enforcement. Will the crime scene help the inexperienced villain on Sunday evening? Or do such series rather scare off potential criminals, since the culprit in such series is always caught in the end?

People lie, professor. The only thing that we can count on is the evidence.
(Gil Grissom in CSI: On the trail of the perpetrators, Season 9, episode 10)

What is the CSI Effect?

In 2006, 25-year-old Jermaine McKinney was arrested in the United States on charges of double homicide. McKinney was a fan of the popular series C.SI: On the trail of the perpetrators and claimed to use knowledge he had acquired from the series to make traces of the crime scene disappear. CSI stands for "Crime Scene Investigation" and the series revolves around the fictional forensic entomologist Gil Grisom, who and his team of criminologists use physical evidence to solve crimes. The success of the series has inspired many other series that follow the same concept. McKinney therefore collected cigarette butts from the crime scene, knowing that the police could find traces of his DNA on them. He also used bleach to remove the victims' blood from his hands. He also laid blankets in his car so as not to leave any traces in the vehicle that would point to him as a murderer. He burned the bodies and his clothes and cleaned the crime scene so investigators wouldn't find fingerprints later. He learned all of this on television.

But McKinney also made mistakes. As in the series he loved so much, it was little things that would later convict him. For one, an accomplice used one of the victims' credit cards. This put the investigators on the right track. McKinney also threw some evidence, including one of the murder weapons - a bloody crowbar - into a lake. However, it was winter and the lake frozen over, so the evidence lay on the surface. Investigators were later able to recover the evidence and convict McKinney of the crime.

Stories like this suggest that series with criminal content like CSI, Bones, Crossing Jordan, Numbers, NCIS, etc. can shape the behavior of criminals. But not only criminals should be influenced by these series. According to media reports, there is a trend in US courts to exclude jurors who come out as fans of such series from trial. The reason for this is the assumption that they have a distorted idea of ​​the investigation process through media consumption and tend to make excessive and unrealistic demands on the public prosecutor's office. This leads to the fact that defendants are released, although the evidence should actually be sufficient for a guilty verdict.

The CSI effect is an old media effect in a new costume. At the beginning of the last century, criminalists postulated the “Sherlock Holmes” effect (Wolffram, 2013). The effect should be felt by consumers of the Sherlock Holmes novels, who would get a wrong idea of ​​what is criminalistically possible through reading them. Over time, some series and films have been suggested to change the public's perception of a particular job. A well-known example of this is the film The silence of the Lambs, who is said to have shaped the professional profile of the profiler - translated as case analyst - in public to this day. But is that also true? Do TV series have such a strong impact on viewers?

Different types of CSI effects

Simon A. Cole and Rachel Dioso-Villa (2009) carried out a content analysis of the television media and were able to identify several subgroups of the CSI effect. In the following we will present the four most important subgroups and consider the scientific evidence in the next chapters. These are the (1) influence of forensic series on the court system, and there especially on the jury, (2) the influence on (potential) criminals, (3) the advertising effect and (4) the technology effect. With all of these postulated effects, it is assumed that consumers learn from series. Is that really the case?

A possible influence of forensic series on juries (subgroup 1) is particularly relevant for the Anglo-Saxon legal system. The English-language media are particularly concerned about the allegation by some public prosecutors that juries have been placing a special focus on forensic evidence such as DNA analyzes and fingerprints in court proceedings since the appearance of criminalist series at the turn of the millennium. Failure to provide such evidence will result in an acquittal even if there is enough other evidence such as testimony. A reverse effect would also be conceivable. The positive portrayal of the forensic scientists engaged by the state in forensic series can lead to the jury ascribing a disproportionately high level of credibility to them and leading to a higher conviction rate.

Some police officers assume that knowledge is imparted through forensic series (Milicia, 2006; subgroup 2). They have therefore expressed concern that criminals will also watch these series and thereby get ideas on how to cover their tracks, which ultimately makes police work difficult. In addition, series such as CSI can present the profession of forensic scientist in an attractive way, so that there is an increased demand for study places and career opportunities in this area (sub-group 3).

Strictly speaking, the technology effect is not a CSI effect, but offers a supplement or an alternative to it (sub-group 4). Shelton, Kim and Barak (2006) describe the real progress of technology and forensics over time, which is also reflected in current television series. Not CSI, but technical progress is responsible for more critical juries and more cunning criminals. If you look at it from an experimental perspective, the technology effect is the baseline against which the CSI effect must be measured. Knowledge increases over time on the jury's side as well as on the criminals side, as the technological capabilities of a society improve. Should the CSI effect exist, it would have to go beyond what one would expect from a pure influence of the technology around us.

Media impact research

From a psychological point of view, it is entirely plausible that the media can influence their consumers in the way described above. As early as 1963, Albert Bandura showed in an experiment that is now considered a classic psychological experiment that media content can be acquired by pure viewing. In the "Bobo doll study" children were shown a film in which a person attacked and insulted a doll. If the person in the video was not punished or even rewarded for their behavior at the end, the children showed strong tendencies towards imitation. However, more modern media impact research is moving away from a simple stimulus-response model and towards a benefit and reward approach, according to which consumers select media content in a targeted manner and there is an interaction between the two.

Does the CSI effect really exist?

However, before one deals with possible mechanisms of action, evidence of the CSI effect must first be presented. The most researched effect is the influence of criminal series on jurors. The reason for this is that such an effect would call the entire jury system into question. When a simple television series is enough to influence jurors so massively that they are no longer able to come to a fair judgment, the entire system seems prone to error.

The first check for such an effect was carried out by Michael Watkins in 2004. He interviewed 53 prosecutors and defense lawyers and found that nearly 80% believed that crime TV series created unrealistic expectations among the jury. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (2005), which interviewed 102 prosecutors, came to a similar conclusion. In addition, almost 40% of respondents reported that they had already lost a case because of the CSI effect. The problem with such studies is that they are a collection of anecdotes, not actual jury behavior. It could also be that prosecutors tend to attribute an acquittal to the CSI effect instead of, for example, assuming a lack of evidence.

In order to examine the actual behavior of the jury, Kimberlianne Podlas (2006) simulated the decision-making process in a jury. To do this, she invited 538 volunteers to her laboratory and had them discuss in small groups a case of sexual violence and a case of illegal drug possession, in which forensic evidence was neither necessary nor available for decision-making. She found that fans of criminal series no longer relied on forensic evidence, nor were they increasingly pleading for an acquittal. In a similar design to Podlas, Schweitzer and Saks (2007) found that CSI fans were generally more critical of forensic evidence, but their attitude was not reflected in a changed judgment compared to non-users. Cole and Dioso-Villa (2011) provide a good overview of the findings relating to the legal system.