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January 31, 2006

CSI Effect As Blowback

Some cops and prosecutors are claiming that TV crime shows are helping real life murderers commit crimes and cover their tracks. If true, this would be another facet of the so-called “CSI effect,” “an expectation in every trial for the type of high-tech forensic evidence the show's investigators uncover.” Both of these developments are disturbing—especially if you're a cop or prosecutor. What's sort of funny about these “CSI effects” is that they're products of shows that are popular primarily because Americans so badly want to believe in humanity's ability to perfectly track down and punish law breakers and “evildoers.” It appears to work like this:

  1. People get scared.
  2. The President or the prosecutor or the police (the three P's!) reassure the scared people: “Don't worry, we're on it!”
  3. The scared people see CSI and think, “Sweet! With cops and investigators and technology like that, we have nothing to fear!”
  4. The scared people aren't really scared quite so much. CSI and similar shows become wildly popular.
  5. A few of the not-so-scared CSI watchers commit crimes, using tricks they saw on the shows to make it harder for law enforcement to crack their case. More people get away with their crimes.
  6. The rest of the not-so-scared CSI watchers sit on juries and hold the state to a higher burden of proof; therefore, more people get away with their crimes
In short, CSI is a show that makes us think we're safer, even as it makes us less safe than ever. And that's how fantasies of false security are created and maintained, and more importantly how they backfire.

Now, the real question: Is the Bush/Cheney “War on Terra” really just “CSI” for global terrorism?

Posted January 31, 2006 06:42 AM | crimlaw

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Yesterday in Rhet 105 one of my students mentioned this issue as an example of an subject that would be difficult to discuss in an argumentative essay that relies on first-person description of things they (my students) have seen themselves.

I had to concur (most of my students don't have much first hand experience with crime scene investigation). But not before remembering some recent redecorating done by my hometown police department---a department famous mostly for its highly visible failure to solve a horrific crime years back. I think you're spot-on re the weird and creepy dynamic around this show.

Posted by: washburn at January 31, 2006 01:27 PM

Regarding point 6: Such shows could foster an undue faith in wizbang technology to prove guilt or innocence. I'm recalling an episode of Law & Order (sad how my points of reference are TV shows I've seen) that revolved around the fact that finger print matching is not as black and white as it appears in the CSI franchise. Much depends on the interpretation of the particular analyst. Apparently, there is debate regarding how many points of similarity are needed to declare a comparison a "match".

I'm actually a fan of CSI, but not the spinoffs. Who told David Caruso that acting is all about saying something almost clever or quasi-prophetic while putting on or taking off one's sunglasses?

Posted by: moneypenny at January 31, 2006 07:49 PM

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