Investigating the 'CSI Effect' Effect: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law
41 Pages Posted: 9 May 2009 Last revised: 10 Sep 2009
Date Written: April 1, 2009
Beginning in 2002, popular media disseminated serious concerns that the integrity of the criminal trial was being compromised by the effects of television drama. Specifically, it was widely alleged that the popular CSI franchise, one of the most watched programs on television, was affecting jury deliberations and outcomes. It was claimed that jurors confused the idealized portrayal of the capabilities of forensic science on television with the actual capabilities of forensic science in the contemporary criminal justice system. Accordingly, jurors suffered from inflated expectations concerning the occurrence and probative value of forensic evidence. When forensic evidence failed to reach these expectations, it was suggested, juries acquitted. In short, it was argued that, in circumstantial evidence cases in which juries would have convicted before the advent of the CSI franchise, juries were now acquitting. As we have argued elsewhere, such charges, if true, would constitute a serious challenge to law's fundamental faith in the jury and thus raise serious questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system itself. However, the media perpetuated these claims in the absence of any convincing evidence that there was any such effect. Thus far, social science studies intended to detect the CSI effect have found little evidence of it. Unlike other studies that seek to test the CSI effect by thorough juror surveys and simulations, our approach has been to analyze actual acquittal rates in criminal trials. In an earlier analysis of federal trial data, we found no change in acquittal rates correlated with the advent of CSI. Although this finding does not itself disprove the CSI effect, it does suggest that the media claims that there is such an effect were premature. In the first part of this paper, we present additional data derived from state criminal trials that finds only equivocal evidence of a significant change in acquittal rates in response to CSI. We then present a content analysis of media claims about the CSI effect. This analysis shows that, contrary to the social science evidence, a consumer of popular media would have the impression that CSI is causing wrongful acquittals in our criminal justice system. In the final part of this paper, we draw parallels between the media storm concerning the CSI effect and another episode in which media claims about a severe social problem in the legal system were widely disseminated despite the absence of any convincing evidence that the problem was in fact occurring. The episode was the widespread concern about a supposed litigation explosion or hyperlexis during the 1970s and 80s. Echoing the legal scholarship concerning the litigation explosion, we explore the underlying anxieties that may generate media claims about social problems in the legal system.
Keywords: CSI, juries, media, litigation explosion, forensic science, television, acquittal
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