Crime is a favorite theme for both the media and film industry, but when the justice system is excessively dramatized we run at risk of blurring the line between myth and reality. Take the so-called “CSI effect”, for instance — an umbrella term used to describe how people’s view of how criminal investigations are carried out is heavily skewed by such shows as Law & Order, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or even Dateline NBC. This effect, critics believe, is responsible for the myth of the minute-long DNA analysis, which actually can take days, and can even go as far as causing wrongful convictions or acquittals because jurors watched too much TV.
As one district attorney put it, “Jurors now expect us to have a DNA test for just about every case. They expect us to have the most advanced technology possible, and they expect it to look like it does on television.”
One recent study which highlights the effects of TV consumption and myth constructions was performed by researchers at MedUni Vienna’s Center for Public Health. The team asked 322 people living in Austria about their TV habits and then asked them if the death penalty still applies in Austria. The follow-up question in case they answered “yes” was how many people did they thought were on death row.
Despite the death penalty was abolished on 7 February 1968, or almost 50 years ago, the researchers found 11.6 percent of the participants thought the death penalty still applied. The more TV they watched, the higher the probability they thought this was the case.
“It seems that television has the potential to influence viewers’ perception and knowledge of core aspects of society,” the researchers noted in their study.
Benedikt Till, one of the lead researchers, says the link is mainly due to American film and TV series which are very popular with the Austrian public. For Till, this wasn’t all that surprising, as previous research showed distorted reality on TV leads to a distorted reality in the viewers’ mind as well.
“For example, people who watch a lot of television often overestimate the number of people in those professions that are frequently portrayed on television, such as doctors, lawyers or policemen, for example. They also overestimate the probability of being the victim of crime,” Till said.
Next, Till and colleagues plan on researchers whether too much TV is also linked with other prejudices, myths and misinformation about health-related topics. Specifically, the researchers will study media exposure and suicide, and see whether there’s a link between the TV and the public’s perception on this important social issue.