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Expert explains: 3.5 ways criminology is not like your favourite crime show IRL

Chances are you’ve stumbled across, intentionally sought out, or indeed, are addicted to, a few crime shows. They’re immersive, exciting, and the culprit gets caught like clockwork every time. But, how realistic is crime media? And are we doing the justice system more harm than good by using it as our source of criminological truth?

We spoke to Assistant Professor Robyn Lincoln from our Criminology program about our ongoing obsession with fictitious crime stories, and the effect this can have on the real-world processes of investigating wrongdoings.

Demystifying the forensic fascination

At the beginning of a new semester, we regularly ask students why they have chosen to study criminology. Invariably, the conversation turns to our favourite crime shows – sometimes there’s impassioned debate about Crime Scene Investigations (CSI) versus Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), or discourse around recent offerings like Only Murders in the Building. Inevitably we end by acknowledging that crime entertainment fostered our interest in criminology.

Whether we watch local cold case re-enactments, Nordic police procedurals, American courtroom dramas, or English forensic pathologists at work, the reality is that crime media in books, films, TV series, or podcasts is likely to be a prime source of information. Most of us are not offenders, will never experience victimisation, or be employed as justice professionals, so we tend to draw upon these mediated experiences to inform our understanding of crime.

A brief history of crime media

Interest in crime-as-entertainment is not new. There were ‘penny dreadful’ pamphlets about gory crimes and highway robberies in the 1800s, scandal sheets in the 1900s, and then an abundance of hard-boiled detective novels. From mid-century, police shows emerged alongside television, followed by an array of forensically-themed programs around the turn of this century. The CSI franchise had 30 million viewers in its sixth and final season in 2015, broadcast in over 170 countries. It became the hallmark of blurring forensic fact and fiction. Forensic scientists on CSI rarely give evidence in court, yet they visit crime scenes, carry guns, make arrests, and usually rely on technology to arrive at answers with very little scientific interpretation. This runs counter to the more tentative conclusions actual criminologists and forensic experts make, based on evidence, probabilities and likelihood ratios rooted in real science.

So, the question is – does it matter? We know that entertainment is not real, and are perfectly capable of discerning fact from fiction. Yet, there are ways where the mediatised representation of offenders, victims, justice personnel, crime agencies, and procedures can imprint onto our perspectives. Here are three messy misperceptions that can flow from our crime media viewing habits.

The CSI effect

The CSI effect is a real phenomenon that originated in the early 2000s and was subsequently reported on in American popular media. There is anecdotal (and limited empirical) evidence to suggest that crime victims might demand police to perform tasks like dusting for fingerprints, or jurors insisting on DNA evidence at trial, and that police and prosecutors are inclined to require more evidence than may actually be warranted. These expectations are all rooted in unrealistic representations of the prosecutorial process as depicted on TV.

Technological fixes

As there are with forensics, there are elevated expectations that technology can be harnessed as an infallible crime-solver. This ranges from CCTV footage, which is inexplicably assumed to exist in every public space, to vehicle number plate recognition and the geolocative capacities of smartphones, where it is anticipated that everyone can be tracked and traced. While surveillance devices are ubiquitous, not all crimes can be resolved by these means – just because a person was there does not mean they actually did the crime.

Forensics are prominent in crime-media with much use of blue light
“Washington Field Office ERT” by FBI is licensed under CC PDM 1.0, with thanks.

Citizen investigators

The abundance of streamed series and podcasts that address unsolved or contentious cases affords us all an opportunity to become amateur sleuths. True crime docos can encourage our involvement, but can also thwart the work of police and courts in dealing with the evidence. Just ask anyone who’s logged onto the popular true crime chat room Websleuths. While amateur crime solvers can occasionally help overturn miscarriages of justice, there can be ethical issues of fairness and objectivity in these ‘infotainment’ offerings. Meanwhile, some jurors have even been tempted to do their own social media investigations while serving on empanelled juries – leaving them in contempt of court.

And finally, a diet of predominantly US crime media programming can leave us naïve about how our own justice system works. This Americanisation of justice means many emergency calls in Australia are made to 911, not 000, and there are instances where magistrates have had to rebuke someone pleading ‘no contest your honour’ – a plea not available here. By drawing on crime media, and crime media alone, we’re adopting unrealistic perceptions of how the justice system can and should work.

There are many ways that criminology does not align with your favourite crime show, film or podcast. In the realm of mediated crime and justice, there is a tendency to idealise victims, present typified perpetrators, to gloss over complex legal issues, and to rely on appeals to emotion. While none of this is wrong – after all it contributes to our viewing enjoyment – it does mean that it’s helpful to have well-developed media literacy skills.

This is where studying criminology can come in handy, providing a guiding framework that’ll help us to be savvier when watching our favourite crime shows – of course, without ruining the compelling entertainment value we derive from them.

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