This Strange Effect


Writing in bOING bOING, Andrew Zolli says that cop shows "are having an unexpected impact in the real world: the public thinks every crime can be solved, and solved now—just like on television. That bogus expectation is having a real effect on the criminal justice system, changing the way prosecutors and defendants try their cases. It's called the CSI effect, a phenomenon in which actual investigations are driven by the expectations of the millions of people who watch fake cop and courtroom dramas."


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  1. The dirty truth is that people are convicted of crimes because 1) they talk to the cops without a lawyer or 2) they do something stupid (like talk to the cops without a lawyer). Few convictions happen because of investigations.

  2. Excellent. This is just one more thing that might get me tossed out of the jury pool when I report for jury duty later this month.

  3. The local sheriff’s sole investigative technique is to take two perps and tell each that the other is ratting him out. I don’t think he even bothers arresting anyone when just one person is accused of a crime.

  4. Hmmm. Not that I’m particularly anxious to go where this could take me, but I find this post very ironic in light of how often we read in Reason that it’s utterly ludicrous to think that anyone could ever believe or even be influenced by what he or she sees on TV or other entertainment media.

  5. Fyodor, if you’re hoping to get flamed, I’m afraid I can’t do it. Will an even-tempered discussion suffice?

    Most reason articles on the topic are dismissive of the idea that people act in ways that either duplicate what they see in mass media (e.g., kids watching violent shows are not more likely to commit violence, men who watch pornography are not more likely to commit rape) or do what mass media tells them to do (e.g., commercials don’t override people’s freedom to choose, which the experiences of New Coke and the McDLT tell us is true).

    It’s not incompatible with that view to say that mass media can give people faulty impressions of how the world works, e.g., people think CSI is how most cases are solved, or people think clones are mind-controlled zombies that get cooked up in a vat overnight.

    So, fyodor, I don’t see any irony or hypocrisy in the reason blogger’s view of this story.

  6. Most of the crimes dealt with on tv shows are homocides. The fact is most homocides are solved very quickly or not at all. The majority of these crimes are comitted by someone known to the victim, and a fairly easily run down.
    Unfortunately, real police detectives are not the noble, intelligent, honest, sensitive characters you see on shows like NYPD blue, nor are the crime seen people and forensics people hip geniuses like on CSI.
    What they are are overworked, underpaid government employees who focus on clearing obvious cases and keeping up with the workload, not running around pursuing a pet cold case or an implausible theory. The sad fact is anyone with more than half a brain will be making a lot more money doing something else.

  7. I have to ask – how big is that group of people out there who simply cannot distinguish a television show from reality? If it is at all sizeable, I must say that’s pretty sad and pretty scary at the same time.

  8. Raymund drew the distinction pretty well, I think.

    I should add one more thing: Unlike the sort of arguments that Fyodor is describing, I’m not attacking these shows at all, and I don’t think Andrew Zolli is either — not for those reasons, anyway. A well-made police procedural is very entertaining, even if it isn’t true to reality; that in itself is reason enough to defend its existence. I might bash CSI or Law & Order for not living up to my standards of “well-made,” but that’s a whole nother kettle of kelp…

  9. Raymund, good points. However, within the discussions of these issues, Reason writers (Walker has probably not been among them) have frequently said things along the lines of, “Viewers can obviously tell that what they are watching is fiction and not real life.” Alas, I don’t have the links to back this up, but I assure you that this kind of thing has frequently been said to pooh-pooh any notion of mass media influence, and this *does* contradict what Walker is pointing out here. Now, the degree of belief/influence surely varies with the context, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that people automatically believe everything they see. But I think it’s equally simplistic, and self-serving, to suggest the exact opposite, as Reason writers have often done.

    So, what makes you think I’m asking to be flamed? My last post’s intro, that I’m not anxious to go further down this road, was meant to indicate that I’m not trying to advocate for government censorship, and in fact I’m generally quite sympathetic to the Reason line on the issue.

    However, like humans everywhere, I sometimes think Reason writers go overboard to justify themselves and try to give the impression that there could be no possible downside to their positions, and we should read their words with as much healthy skepticism as anyone else’s.

    Hypocrosy, no. Irony, yeah, I’d say so.

  10. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I’ve written in Reason about mass-media influence:

    I don’t think that’s very far from what other Reason writers have expressed about the issue.

  11. Fyodor, sorry, I misinterpreted your “don’t want to go down that road” as an expectation by you that someone would flame you for what you were saying.

  12. “Sure, art can be an influence for ill, just as it can do good.”

    Jesse, you are quite clearly expressing here the paradoxical nature of the issue that I believe has been brushed aside frequently by other Reason writers. Since I was quite certain Reason writers have made the kind of comments to which I’m alluding, I thought their existence would be self-evident to many readers of this blog. But if it’s not, and since I can’t back it up, I’ll gladly drop the subject.

  13. Raymund, that’s why I’m not a writer! 🙂 Apology accepted!!

  14. Andrew Zolli is late in the game. I’m assuming the current spate of “CSI effect” articles are driven by the marketing people of CSI. As long as as during the OJ trial, judges and lawyers had noticed that allegedly documentary shows such Unsolved Mysteries and American Justice had given jurors and victims relatives the idea that for every crime, there is a pile of easily followed clues leading directly to a conviction. It think most major dailies have done a story on this in the last ten years.

  15. There is a big difference between people being influenced by media, and saying that it excuses them from responsibility for their actions. Whether or not someone is more likely to become a violent criminal because of the entertainment they seek, is a moot point to me. Influenced or not, people still have the free will to decide on their actions, and the law must always reflect that. I think that’s the distinction here.

  16. scooter is right that this is not a recent phenomenon. I encountered a similar attitude several years ago when I served on a jury. It was a prosecution of a man for failure to pay child support, and the prosecutor’s case was primarily based on documentary evidence, along with testimony from the mother of the man’s children.

    We ended up as a hung jury because one juror held out. Every time we tried to pin him down as to his reasons, he would fall back on the argument “well, the prosecutor only called one witness–how can he have a case with only one witness.” This was in Los Angeles, about a year after the OJ case, with its endless parade of witnesses to the stand.

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