In a 2022 poll, half of Americans said they enjoy the genre of true crime, including 13 percent who call it their favorite genre. But Albrecht says it’s getting harder to tell what actually constitutes “true” crime.
“What’s really interesting is, at some level, it doesn’t matter what’s true,” she says.
“The lines of true crime are getting increasingly blurry. Is it entertainment? Or is it factual knowledge being delivered to the audience?”
The method of how evidence is delivered is of crucial importance whether you’re trying to sway a jury or keep an audience captivated.
“Some of these sorts of things you might hear in a podcast, you won’t hear in court, like speculation, or whether the defendant is a good person. Those things are not materially relevant to the evidentiary questions about a case,” says Albrecht. “But it’s really relevant in the world of the podcast, to make the story meaningful. So, it’s interesting to what extent that matters in the public perception of what criminal justice is, versus how it actually ends up resolved in a trial.”
There are some researchers who argue that the CSI Effect has not been proven to exist with juries, but, in certain cases, just the idea that it could exist has had real-life impact. In a case tried in Maricopa County, Ariz., prosecutors believed the CSI Effect was causing jurors to be out of touch with reality regarding the importance of forensic evidence — so much so, that they adjusted the way they conducted their prosecution and court business.
“If the people making decisions in court think it’s real,” says Albrecht, “then for all intents and purposes, it’s still having an effect.”
Albrecht says she’d like to see more research on how perceptions and knowledge from true-crime podcasts are actually making it into courtrooms and to juries, and to people who work in the courts.
She is conducting a new analysis with Georgia State graduate student Sierra Bell that focuses on the role of expertise in legitimizing different crime and entertainment content. They’re looking at the so-called “experts” featured in true-crime shows to gauge the veracity of the claims being made to ascertain if they’re supported by the body of scientific literature.
Albrecht says as more Americans are engaged in and learning about the justice system, it should be a net positive, but she also warns that many people aren’t getting a realistic view of what happens in the majority of cases.
“There are good things about people understanding court procedures, or unfairness in the justice system,” says Albrecht. “But we also should be cautious that we’re only seeing the most interesting parts of the justice system. Most court appearances are not the trial of the century.”