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Photo by Becca Smouse

Crime media distorts public perception: An analysis of Arizona media bias

Forensic science has taken the spotlight in mainstream media, both fact-based and fictional. Popular fictional shows, like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, give unrealistic scenarios of criminal proceedings by both forensic pathologists and investigators. From inaccurate timetables to blurred job responsibilities, fictional media has impacted the public’s perception of the criminal justice system.

Factual-based crime shows, such at The First 48 and Forensic Files, are often oversimplified for entertainment purposes. The news media also adds to the confusion. Public safety officials and the news media are often at odds. The media yearns to release case details as quickly as possible, while officials attempt to keep investigations private to minimize public harm.

This research takes a unique approach to the impact varying media entities have on the public’s perception of the criminal justice system, and how the system has morphed as the public’s expectations have altered. Evidence collecting procedures have changed, along with the sheer volume of evidence processed on a daily basis at crime labs around the state. Courtroom procedures have also changed, as juries now expect a certain amount of physical evidence to be presented.

Some background: Forensic science is the application of science to the criminal and civil laws that are enforced by police agencies in a criminal justice system. The term forensic science encompasses a broad array of testing sciences that aid law enforcement in conducting investigations.

The American Academy of Forensic Science incorporates eleven sections within the umbrella term of forensic science, including digital and multimedia science, odontology, pathology, physical anthropology and behavioral science.

Crime media, such as TV shows, movies, podcasts, online platforms and other media entities, focus on creating entertainment-based content by incorporating elements from the forensic science industry and the criminal justice system.

Top misconceptions: Fictional shows

Fictional crime shows have commanded cable networks for decades, entertaining audiences through the common ploy of a comical investigator, lightning fast testing procedures and predictable assailants. These shows have proven to influence the public’s opinion of the criminal justice system, often by creating misconceptions of the roles and abilities of forensics.

Here are some of the top misconceptions spotted in fictional crime shows:

Focusing on one case at a time. This can be seen in shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Bones, Criminal Minds and iZombie. In reality, investigators are often juggling multiple cases at once.

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Scientist are best buds with investigators. In shows like Bones and CSI, various departments of the crime lab will work on different pieces of evidence for the same case at the same time. In reality, state crime labs can turn over hundreds of pieces of evidence in a month, and most of them unrelated to one another. The scientists also often double as a sidekick for the investigation, with forensic technicians tagging along on witness interviews, arresting suspects and firing weapons. A scientist will spend the most time processing evidence in a lab, and have very little interaction with the investigating officer, instead submitting a report of findings through the chain of command.

The tech. Shows will often sensationalize a crime lab’s technological abilities. On Bones, the team will often use holograms and other advanced simulation programs to recreate the scene of a crime. Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, who also serves as an executive producer of Bones, states all of the technology portrayed the show is real and the science is accurate. But, even so, some experts say shows like this portray technology that is not feasible for a government agency to afford.

Timelines. Typically, at the end of an episode or movie, the case is almost always solved, stretching over a time period of no longer than a week or so. In reality, more cases than not remain unsolved for years. Analyzing evidence, such as DNA and fingerprints, takes mere minutes on shows. In actuality, evidence is processed through a series of tests that are often long and involved, time-consuming and expensive.

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Medical examiners v. Coroners. The terms medical examiner and coroner are often used interchangeably, but the positions have very distinct difference: A medical examiner is a practicing physician, while a coroner is an elected official. Counties will have one or the other employed to examine remains, not both. The medical examiner is responsible for putting together a complete report of injuries for a death, a detail often missed by these types of shows.

Top misconceptions: True Crime

While a significant portion of crime media leans toward the fictional side, a number of television shows and movies are based in facts from actual crimes. This is commonly referred to as true crime. Shows such as Forensic Files, F.B.I Files and The First 48 present real details and outcomes from cases investigated by legitimate government agencies. While these shows are based in fact, the production and editing process can create a set of misconceptions for the viewer.

Here are some of the top misconceptions from true crime shows:

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Timelines. Shows are edited to follow a seemingly speedy timeline, fitting investigations into a short 42 minute-long timeframe. In reality, cases can span months and years. Shows such a Dr. G Medical Examiner skip over the more mundane tasks, such as filing paperwork and compiling reports.

Creating bias in the editing. Plot lines often follow an agenda, focusing on testimony that either sides pro-defense or pro-prosecution, and highlights a sympathetic character.

A closer look: Making A Murderer

The Netflix original series Making a Murderer received wide criticism for it’s bias in favor of convicted murderer Steven Avery. In 2007, Avery was found guilty for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, whose remains were found in a fire pit on his property. His nephew, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, confessed to helping Avery with the murder and was also found guilty. Both were sentenced to life in prison.

Video by Netflix

Prior to the controversial investigation and trial, Avery had spent over a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1985, Penny Beerntsen was sexually assaulted, and later identified Avery as an assailant. Avery, who insisted his innocence, was convicted and served 10 years in prison, only to be exonerated by DNA evidence that proved he didn’t commit the crime. Because of her relationship with Avery, Beernsten was approach by the Making a Murderer production crew, but declined to be a part of the show as she felt the producers had already decided Avery was innocent.

The show first aired on popular online-streaming site Netflix in December of 2015. Producers have announced plans for a second season of the show, focusing on the post-conviction process. Dassey, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was going to be released in November of 2016 after a federal judge overturned his conviction earlier in August. However, the Department of Justice filed an emergency motion to keep the now 26-year-old behind bars until his overturned conviction is settled. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit granted the motion. Dassey is still awaiting a decision from the court.

Top Misconceptions: News Media

Because of the public’s fascination with crime — more specifically violent crime — news media puts heavy emphasis on the coverage of the criminal justice system. News media will often focus on complex cases that hook audiences in, more commonly known as high profile cases. However, coverage can often be sensationalized, creating bias for viewers and spreading misconceptions of criminal justice processes.

One side of the story. Because of time constraints on the newscast and space limitations in a newspaper, editors are sometimes forced to cut information. Because of this, news media often only portrays one side of the story, instead of presenting a balanced report. A story may only focus on the victim or heavily present evidence against a suspect, instead of providing information on all parties involved.

If it bleeds, it leads. From live footage of a high-speed chase to day-to-day updates of court proceedings of a high profile case, news coverage of crime consistently captures the attention of audiences. Crime stories often look for the most dramatic details to lead with, causing the most awe and drama for audiences. This is taught to young journalists through the commonly known phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Withheld information. Public safety officials often redact or withhold information from the press, depending on the sensitivity of the case and if the investigation is still ongoing. Reporters are often left to find their own sources in order to make deadline, sometimes leading to inaccurate information being disseminated.

Several experts interviewed for this research project discuss some of the top misconceptions of the forensic industry as portrayed in fictional and factual media. Audio package by Becca Smouse.

CSI Effect: A study

Experts believe the general public has begun to adopt unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence as it is involved in an investigation and in court proceedings. This is commonly known as the CSI effect.

A study was conducted along with this research to test public knowledge of common misconceptions presented by fictional media to test this theory. Participants were asked seven questions directly based on evidence collecting, forensic testing and roles of scientists in an investigation.

Below are some results:

The study included 107 participants, with 82 percent in the age range of 18- to 25-year-old, while the other 18 percent was 26 or older. The majority of the younger demographic identify as student at Arizona State University, with over half acknowledging they have taken at least one course in criminal justice. Over half of the respondents said they had heard of forensic science from true crime shows and news articles online, while an overwhelming 82 percent of the participants recorded learning about the industry from fictional crime shows.

Of the questions asked, the majority of participants incorrectly answered a question based on evidence collection. The question asked what the most appropriate container to collect bloody evidence is, and 72 percent of participants selected a plastic bag. Only 20 percent selected the correct answer: a paper bag.

A significant portion of responders also incorrectly answered a question defining the difference between medical examiners and coroners. Most thought the two worked together, while only 35 percent selected the correct answer: The roles differ, as one is an elected official and the other is a licensed physician.

Participants correctly answered several questions that are based on concepts commonly misrepresented by fictional media. One question asked if a database existed that matched a collected fingerprint to an individual with 100 percent accuracy. Of the responses, 77 percent selected the correct answer of false. In fact, the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) will provide a collection of potential matches, and a fingerprint analyst will then manually compare the collected print with the matches.

Another survey question asked how the discovery of fine traces of DNA found on a murder weapon could be used in a case. Over 80 percent of participants selected the correct answer: The suspect touched the murder weapon at some point. Less than 10 percent selected answers that immediately tied the suspect to the crime, a common misrepresentation of the use of physical evidence seen on fictional crime shows.

Most respondents — 43 perfect — claimed they based their answers from knowledge from fictional crime shows, such as CSI. Roughly 20 percent said their answers came from consuming true crime shows, such as The First 48 and Forensic Files. Only about 10 percent based his or her answers on information from TV news or news articles.

Based on this brief study, it is fair to state crime media on a variety of platforms influences the public, and that this can create misconceptions of forensic science and how the industry interacts with the criminal justice system. See all of the results here.

The impact

Court, juries and expert testimony

A major component of the forensic scientist’s role within the criminal justice system is often left out of popular crime media: Court. A scientist’s role in a criminal investigation doesn’t end when the results come back, they must also defend these results.

Detectives and attorneys will often have unrealistic expectations on what can be prepared for court. Because of the time crunch, only a certain amount of tests can be completed in a given amount of time for a case. Scientists will often work with detectives to strategically pick evidence that will best aid in the investigation.

Juries also have unrealistic expectations of the amount of physical evidence presented in court. More specifically, jurors expect DNA evidence linking a defendant to a crime in almost every case. Studies have shown states across the nation are bogged down by a backlog of forensic evidence waiting to be tested, with DNA as one of the most piled up areas of testing.

A closer look: Casey Anthony

High profile cases have been lost due to a lack of physical evidence presented by the prosecution to jury, most notably seen in the 2011 criminal case against Casey Anthony. The Orlando mother was charged with the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee, but was found not guilty after 6 weeks of testimony.

The jury ultimately decided there was not enough physical evidence, as there was no DNA evidence tying Anthony to the crime, and the toddler’s body was so badly decomposed that a cause of death could not be determined. Prosecutors created a case against Anthony based on her history of lying and her communications with friends to kill her daughter so she could have more time with her boyfriend.

The case was also heavily followed by the mass media, influencing court proceedings and the public perception’s of the trial. Cases such as the 1995 OJ Simpson trial and the 2015 murder trial of Jodi Arias also faced similar scrutiny by news media.

Forensic education: Student expectations

While crime media has been responsible for spreading misconceptions of the criminal justice system to the public, the mass reach has also helped develop more interest in forensic science as a career. The industry felt a boost in job interest after the rise of shows like CSI. To keep up with the growing demand, college-level forensic science programs were developed, a degree largely unheard of before the 2000’s. These programs pose their own challenges on the criminal justice system.

As students continue to purse careers in the forensic science industry, educators are working to standardize the curriculum and provide reality checks for the expectations of the job. Programs like Arizona State University’s Forensic Science program are waiting in line to gain accreditation from the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission, while universities like George Washington University, University of North Texas and Penn State are all accredited. This mimics the industry’s desire to follow protocols and the standardization of procedures to ensure authenticity in the field of forensic science.

Experts warn having a forensic science degree doesn’t entitle students to a job in the profession. Depending on the area of expertise, such as forensic anthropology, job opportunities can be slim. Experts in the field also stress the job isn’t for everyone, especially those working hands-on in death investigations. Kathy Reichs, executive producer for the hit TV show Bones and board certified forensic anthropologist, said the “psychological reality of death” is not something to take lightly.

Raising awareness of the industry

Along with the misconceptions, the crime media has also provided the public with unique insights to the criminal justice system. The shows have brought awareness to an otherwise unknown industry. Shows such as Criminal Minds and Dexter have brought public awareness to specialized lines of work within the forensic industry, forensic profiling and blood stain analysis respectively, that were generally unknown to the greater public.

Studies have also shown audiences who consume Law and Order have improved competency as a juror, encouraging viewers to have better skills in understanding, reasoning and appreciation while listening to testimony and the presentation of evidence. The shows plant the seeds of all the possibilities of evidence that could be collected at a scene and impact a case. This challenges viewers to have a more critical eye of case details.

About the author

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Becca Smouse is a senior at Arizona State University, majoring in journalism through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Becca is also obtaining a minor in criminology and criminal justice through the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. She is completing this thesis as a part of her special degree from Barrett, the Honors College.

Becca would like to thank her thesis committee — Sue Lafond and Brian Brehman — for helping make this project come to life, from helping with the brainstorm, research, edits, and everything in between. She’d also like to send her sincerest thanks all of the experts who interviewed with her over the past year.

Lastly, Becca would like to thank her very supportive friends and family for encouraging her to keep up with the project. (Thanks for keeping me on-track to cross this finish line, dad!)

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