The television show, CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), was first introduced to viewers in 2000, and for 15 years, viewers followed Gil Grissom and, later, D.B. Russell and their team of criminologists as they used physical evidence to solve crime in Sin City.
According to Entertainment Weekly, crime drama television shows accounted for 13 of the top 50 television shows watched during the 2014-2015 season. The number of viewers these television shows brought in is a staggering 159.46 million viewers. Enter the ‘CSI Effect’, which suggests that jurors who are regular viewers of the television show CSI will have unreasonably high expectations of the type of forensic evidence produced by the prosecution.
The term has outlasted the flagship show, and with the dramatic increase in public consumption of content through electronic and social media, the CSI Effect remains a consideration. But has it changed through the years?
In her poster at ISHI 30 titled I’ve Got 99 Forensic Problems from Public Perception: Secondary Transfer, Genealogy, Rapid DNA, DNA Mixtures and More, Rachel Oefelein of DNA Labs International asked the question, “As a Forensic DNA Analyst in 2019, how do we set the record straight in the media, as an expert witness in the courtroom and to victim advocates contacting us to see if we heard about some box that gives DNA results in two hours?”
We interviewed Rachel to ask her about the shifts she’s seen and to discuss the responsibility forensic professionals have to educate others in the courtroom or in the media.
Can you please describe the term ‘CSI Effect’? How did it come to be, and what did it originally refer to when first coined?
The term CSI Effect was perhaps first coined by Richard Willing in an article for USA Today in 2004. Willing described the phenomenon as false expectations of jurors that forensic science work is not only done in the time span of a prime-time television show but that it also foolproof. The origin of the term came from the popularity of the show CSI at the time.
In your experience, does the ‘CSI Effect’ still exist? Has it changed over the years, and if so, how?
Since Willing’s description, CSI Effect has become a catch- all for any number of juror fallacies; all cases have forensic evidence, if you have DNA you have solved the crime and an individual cannot be convicted without forensic evidence. Since the television show CSI’s days of popularity there have been numerous publications identifying failures in the field of forensic science which have all but wiped away the infallible perception.
What do you think has caused this shift?
The expansion of social media and the spotlight put on individual cases of failures have caused this shift. The general public still expects forensic evidence in all of their cases, but they have increased skepticism in the results and often more personal knowledge, whether it be accurate or not, due to true crime popularity, podcasts and the media in general.
Do you feel that forensic analysts have a responsibility to address/correct public or media perception? If not the analysts, who might be the appropriate party?
Forensic analysts do have a responsibility to address/correct public or media perception but that does not necessarily mean running to the local newspaper or responding directly to media. The best information we can provide is to family, friends and stakeholders. We all have the ability to educate our friends and family as to how forensic science actually works in the day to day.
Additionally, we can disseminate information to law enforcement, government, the court system and our individual communities through trainings and publications.
When it comes to media perception, it’s best to have an individual or individuals designated to address any issues that may arise in the press. The priority should always be the communities we serve, and having designated personnel trained in how to address any concerns in the press and the proper procedures to follow is always the best course of action.
How might an analyst go about educating the public/media? Should this be done inside the courtroom, outside, or both?
The courtroom provides a platform for analysts to educate the general public in the work that they do; however, there are also opportunities outside of the courtroom. Engaging with your community whether it be through philanthropic efforts, attending community events or volunteering to speak in community schools, all provides opportunities to teach the public about how the field of forensic sciences operates.
Additionally, social media can be used in a positive way to highlight new technology and the people behind the laboratory door. Channeling all social media through designated personnel again ensures that proper procedures were followed and the information being shared is appropriate.
Are there currently training courses available for analysts or those in the field on how to address the media?
Any interaction with analysts and the media should always be directed through their jurisdiction or laboratory’s PR departments. With that said, it can also fall on the analyst to bring to the attention of the appropriate personnel if there is an issue that should be addressed.
For example, the Public Relations Department of the local law enforcement agency may not be aware that there is new technology changing the way evidence is processed. Getting this information out to the public so they can understand the changes in a meaningful and accurate way is important. Coordinating with all stakeholders, not just law enforcement and the court system, but also the community falls on the forensic laboratory to bring the issue to the attention of the appropriate personnel.
It’s also just as important to train the forensic analysts how to handle inaccurate or bad press. For example, an overturned conviction, a failed admissibility hearing or technology misrepresented in the press should be topics discussed with laboratory personnel, so they are prepared in the courtroom.
Training may include distributing the publication to staff and discussing the types of questions they may face in the courtroom and potential answers to those questions. Internal policies should also be incorporated in training, so staff are familiar with situations where speaking with the media is and is not appropriate.
How would you address concerns government employees may have about being “on the record”?
Being on or off the record typically refers to speaking with press or attorneys.Outside of training, any of these discussions should be in controlled environments.Approvals should have been run through appropriate channels prior to discussions; i.e. scheduled depositions or pre-trial meetings.
With that said, training events are advantageous for all parties.At the end of the day you are the forensic expert! Trainings with press and the legal systems, prosecution and defense, should be encouraged.
It is also important to note, just because the reply should be ‘no comment’ in most situations that does not mean it has to be the end of the discussion. Misconceptions should be corrected; however, since the nature of forensic sciences is such a serious business the discussion of this business should be taken just as seriously and that starts by following the chain of command and preparing proper responses opposed to speaking off the cuff which is typically where misconceptions are born.
Ultimately, how do you foresee correcting misconceptions about DNA and forensic science benefiting the field?
Correcting misconceptions improves the understanding of the general public which ultimately helps our most important stakeholder, the people themselves! Media often can be negatively driven. For every overturned conviction there were thousands of cases with sound forensic work performed. It’s important that the media is provided with information showing the positive side of all the hard work done by the forensic community.
Rachel, thank you again for taking the time to talk with us. As the topic of forensic DNA continues to have an increased presence in the news, social media, podcasts, etc, it is important to discuss the best ways to keep everyone informed.
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