The Ethical Standing of Forensic Characters in Prime-Time Police Procedurals: Principled, Compassionate, and Human
Hawkins, Stacee Brown
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Only a small percentage of Americans have direct contact with law enforcement or the criminal justice system. Much of our understanding of criminal justice comes from media consumption, with an increasing contribution from fictional crime procedurals. Many of these programs are ensembles which include forensic scientists. Previous studies have examined how the science of forensics is conducted and interpreted on these series. This study contributes to the existing research by examining how the moral and ethical code of the forensic scientist is portrayed on television. It aims to address the question: Are these characters as depicted trustworthy? A message system analysis was conducted of 80 episodes, 20 from each of four prime-time American ensemble crime dramas. Quantitative coding recorded the number and types of violations. Qualitative content analysis examined justifications given by characters of their own violations and their reactions to the violations of others. Forensic scientists were significantly less likely to commit violations than traditional investigators, such as detectives and special agents. Compared to traditional investigators, forensic scientists were more likely to focus on interpersonal rather than procedural justifications, and more likely to express personal concern for the impact of committing violations on the physical and emotional health of their colleagues.