Criminal law is no longer seen as exclusively the domain of legal specialists and there is now a popular understanding of criminal law and this is largely due to increased levels of media consumption. Dr Anthony Amatrudo FRSA argues that far from being educational, this ‘CSI effect’ makes us more scared and more punitive.
Legal language is routinely represented to non-specialists and there is a definite fusion of law and culture at the level of popular discourse where we find the real, and the represented, are mingled on television, radio and film; as well as in the print media and the internet.
This should not surprise anybody. It is the inevitable corollary of increased media production and the seemingly insatiable demand for stories about law, especially criminal law, emanating from the news consuming public; and which they act on.
People consume something that they understand as knowledge of the law, though it is gained in an ad hoc and unsystematic fashion. Of course, the supply of legal information in all forms of media, notably the internet, also feeds public demand for it. The discussion of legal cases in our daily lives as a result of it has had an impact upon the popular perception and understanding of legal principles and ethics. There is a plethora of legal and legal-related drama on our television and people tend to perceive that these have an educational function irrespective of whether they actually do.
These drama series tend to be well-scripted and realistically shot and aim to immerse the audience in the plot. All of this may be only of some minor sociological interest but for the fact that the media rely not on legal canon and procedure but on an overly-simplified explanation of cases that often claims to be educative, but which in reality only flags up issues and generalities; and in doing so does not necessarily illuminate legal principle or procedure. The notion of moral panic being fostered through media attention to issues such as mugging, mobile phone theft and illegal immigration is something that academics, policy makers and practitioners are all too aware of. Television depictions of criminal law usually promote unrealistically high standards for police detection rates. It is not surprising therefore that people often understand the world as far more violent than it actually is and believe that criminals get away with the bulk of their crimes. They hold to a misleadingly high standard for police clear-up rates. They often consume media that misrepresents the racial profile of criminals and victims.
Lately a victim’s rights discourse has come to pervade media production and contemporary journalistic practice and the public’s current understanding of the law in an unbalanced and very unhelpful way through the creation of narratives of legal processes, rather than elucidating any established legal principle: for example, in relation to such issues as the proper attribution of culpability and guilt and the systematic playing down of defendant’s rights in terms of judicial safeguards for accused persons in criminal cases. We see all too clearly here how a diet of victim-oriented news discourse can, over time, shape the world view of persons away from the rational and usher in an over-retributive focus in the general population in its wake.
There has been a great deal of academic discussion concerning the so-called CSI Effect which amounts to a concern about the exaggerated usefulness of forensic evidence and the way jurors, notably in the USA, have come to demand incredibly high standards of proof; and how this has led to a raising of the proof required to obtain a typical conviction. Studies have tended to support concerns that some form of CSI Effect is working itself out through the American criminal justice system. It has been shown that those jurors that viewed CSI are increasingly hesitant to believe forensic evidence presented at a criminal trial. There is a growing sense among some members of the legal profession that jurors are more taken with forensics, than with the practice and processes of the law itself. In short, the CSI Effect, and the attention it has received from American legal scholars, represents the clearest case of a link between the consumption of television and definite effects to the operation of the law, in real-world contexts.
All of this has very tangible social policy implications and affects the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system. The issue is that regular members of the public ordinarily have no involvement in the legal process, though they all to a greater or lesser extent consume a version of it in the popular media. People tend to look, usually uncritically, to the media to furnish them with both information and entertainment, of a factual nature, about the law. On the one hand the public are increasingly aware of how to access legal services and of the content of laws through accessing the internet and television; and on the other hand they often have a reductive, and non-technical, view of what law actually is.
Sociologists have shown how this is mirrored in the types of material the public generally access online, which is often simplified, generic and of little practical use in specific cases. The point being that understanding law is a rather complicated enterprise, which can be undertaken at a number of levels. There may be nothing false or directly misleading in any one single broadcast or piece of information discovered on the internet but such a magpie treatment of how legal information is accumulated will always fall short of a thorough understanding; and in the end the last word probably rests with the legal experts anyway. The citizenry may be falsely proud of its legal and specialist knowledge, garnered through consumption of contemporary media.
Dr Anthony Amatrudo is Reader in Criminology at Middlesex University. An extended version of this article appears in volume 15 of Current Legal Issues (OUP), published in February 2013.