Watching cop shows doesn’t help crims do better crimes


German research finds the “CSI effect” is more fiction than fact. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Marg Helgenber, Jorja Fox and William Petersen from the television CSI. Despite all the verisimilitude, forensic TV shows aren't helpful to crims looking for tips and tricks.
Marg Helgenber, Jorja Fox and William Petersen from the television CSI. Despite all the verisimilitude, forensic TV shows aren't helpful to crims looking for tips and tricks.
Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

Have real-life criminals learnt from television how to better conceal their illegal activities? In the first study of its kind, a team of psychologists at the German research facility Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have answered in the negative, unable to find evidence of a correlation between watching forensic science TV shows and getting away with committing a crime.

The American TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, one of the world’s most popular television programs, focuses on the power and importance of forensic science in the field of law enforcement.

Given such ubiquity, many in law enforcement and judicial circles have speculated on the influence such fictional entertainments might have on the minds of the general public.

Their concerns have even given rise to numerous studies into the so-called “CSI effect”, questioning the extent to which potential jurors may be influenced by such programs.

On another side of the conversation, however, other successful TV programs, such as the 2008-13 series Breaking Bad, have been suggested as possible inspirations for real-life criminal activity.

“Over many years, it was presumed that certain links in this regard exist, although there were no appropriate studies to prove this,” says supervisor of the new study, Andreas Baranowski. He and his colleagues ran four separate investigations into the question. Their findings are published in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice.

As a first step, the researchers examined data from the FBI and its German equivalent, the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), and compared the crime detection rates during the years preceding the launch of the CSI series, which was produced from 2000 to 2015, with subsequent rates.

Then they asked 24 convicted criminals in prisons for their opinions on series such as CSI, including whether they thought such shows could help when it came to escaping prosecution.

They next ran a series of experiments to find out whether viewers of the TV shows would, as trial subjects, be better equipped to erase the traces of a mock crime.

The final test was the re-enactment of a crime.

The researchers did not find any connection between watching forensic dramas and the ability to successfully avoid detection after committing a crime. However, the male subjects in the fourth part of the experiment performed better than female subjects, and younger subjects better than older ones, while more highly educated participants did better than their less well educated colleagues.

The researchers also determined that study subjects working in technical professions, primarily men, appear to have certain advantages when it comes to concealing crimes.

Baranowski points out that going all the way back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the 19th century it was speculated that the “wrong kind of people could benefit from the insights provided”.

“Every time something new emerges, there are people who focus on one aspect and without a full and proper consideration sense possible risks and thus call for bans,” he says.

“We can now dispel certain of the myths that have been coursing through the media and other publications for the past 20 years because we are able to state with relative certainty that people who watch CSI are no better at covering their tracks than other people,” Baranowski says.

His comments are bolstered by previous studies into television’s power to influence potential jurors, including a 2007 report titled The CSI Effect: Popular Fiction About Forensic Science Affects the Public’s Expectations About Real Forensic Science, by N.J. Schweitzer and Michael J. Saks, published in the journal Jurimetrics.

Writing about “two of a number of hypotheses loosely referred to as the ‘CSI Effect’”, they concluded that “skepticism toward the forensic science testimony was specific to those whose diet consisted of heavy doses of forensic science television programs”.

Further, a US National Institute of Justice report in 2008 decided that “although CSI viewers had higher expectations for scientific evidence than non-CSI viewers, these expectations had little, if any, bearing on the respondents' propensity to convict”.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age, and is now a freelance journalist based in regional Victoria.
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