The ‘CSI effect’ is a (largely unsupported) concern first raised by prosecutors and media commentators in the United States in the early 2000s, which claims that unrealistic portrayals of forensic science on crime television shows may be having a measurable effect on the decision-making of jurors, in particular, jury acquittals.
The term is named after the hit TV-show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which is renowned for its unrealistic portrayal of hyper-intelligent and exceptionally attractive forensic scientists solving crimes through mind-boggling sophisticated forensic techniques (just zoom in!). As someone who chose an undergraduate degree based on this early 2000s TV-genre, I can attest that the show certainly once had a huge cultural influence.
Despite the hype, very few US studies indicate a ‘CSI-effect’ on jurors. Some studies have shown that viewers of CSI-like television shows are more likely to expect forensic evidence in criminal cases. Whilst others indicate that viewers are less likely to convict in cases led by circumstantial evidence or eye-witness testimony. Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence in this area indicates that CSI-like viewership has little to no effect on jury decision-making.
I’ve always wondered whether these results were similar in Australia, where we are equally flooded with forensic-driven TV-shows from overseas.
An amazingly succinct summary of the studies regarding the ‘CSI-effect’ in Australia is provided by the Australian Psychological Society on its website.
From the limited Australian studies conducted, frequent viewers of forensic TV shows expressed higher expectations that a homicide trial would include forensic evidence and greater trust in forensic expert evidence overall. However, in regard to how this belief influenced jury decision-making, most studies found that viewership had no effect on jury verdicts, and that jurors could easily distinguish fantasy from reality when making simulated jury decisions.
A quote from the Australia Psychological Association attached to the summary makes the general thrust of current research very clear:
The convergent evidence is that CSI viewing does not predict jury verdicts (Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2007; Goodman-Delahunty & Hewson, 2010; Podlas, 2006; Schweitzer & Saks, 2007). [Moreover], the empirical data provide little basis to conclude that frequent CSI viewing compromises jury verdicts.
Overall, although there appears to be a ‘CSI-effect’ in terms of juror perceptions of forensic evidence this does not appear to translate to a troublesome influence on jury decision making in Australia.