by Amy Y.
Americans spend a great amount of time watching television. The only
activities that take up more of our time are sleeping and working. A
typical American household has a television turned on for an average
of seven hours a day, and what is viewed on that television has an
influence on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes. Considering almost 1/3
of primetime entertainment since the 1960s has related to law
enforcement and crime, there is a great possibility for TV viewing to
affect individual’s roles in society as voters, jurors, and legal
clients. Individuals often integrate ideas from TV into their beliefs
about real world systems.
Take for example, Law and Order, the longest running crime
drama on American primetime television. Every 60-minute episode of
Law and Order follows the same structure – a crime is discovered
(usually in the opening scene), the crime is investigated in the first
half of the episode, and it is solved and prosecuted in the second
half of the episode. Cases are wrapped up in 60 minutes, minus time
for commercials, and a verdict is reached before the credits roll.
This depiction of “swift” justice can be misleading to the public.
Most criminal investigations take months or years. Some cases are
never solved. The fictional portrayal of the criminal justice system
often results the truth being revealed, including the motives,
actions, or intentions of the defendant. However, many victims never
receive this kind of finality in real life. While legal television
shows, including Law and Order, do attempt to use real life legal
stories, the entertainment version of the criminal justice system
often results is a distorted version of legal reality.
In addition to the frequently discussed “CSI effect,”
other misconceptions presented in legal dramas involve the “excitement
of trial.” Courtrooms lend themselves to dramatic depiction, much
more than the everyday practice of law in the real world. In
reality, the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea
bargains and never get to a jury trial. Also, the players in the
fictional criminal justice system often perpetuate stereotypes – the
noble prosecutor or public interest lawyer, the slimy and deceptive
defense or corporate lawyer, and the crazy or deranged defendant.
Crime shows rarely focus on mitigating, and sometimes complex,
components of criminal behavior and are unlikely to portray offenders
in a sympathetic or realistic manner.
Most people never come in contact with the legal system, and, if they
do, their contact is minimal – drawing up a will, a traffic ticket,
etc. This allows the public’s attitude toward the criminal justice
system to be greatly affected and influenced by what they watch on
television, in movies, or see on the internet. The public’s
fascination with pretend-real-life crime and justice is not likely to
fade, and the misperceptions and stereotypes are not going to
disappear. It is, therefore, incumbent on everyone in the real-world
criminal justice system to acknowledge the difference and make a
concerted effort to bridge the gap. A criminal justice system that is
indifferent to its constituents’ understanding risks the public’s
disillusionment and disenchantment.