Television and Reality: What Do We Really Know?

I’m a huge Law & Order fan.

Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit, the original Law & Order: you name it, I’ll watch it. If there’s a marathon playing, it’ll own my attention for the next several hours.

My idea of a crisis is when several networks show episodes at the same time.

After consuming dozens of episodes from each series, I realized something: much of what I “know” about the legal system is based on shows like Law & Order and CSI.

There was a time when I studied criminal law in college and planned on becoming a lawyer; I’m no stranger to the theoretical application of the law and the powers of the executive and judicial branches of our government.

However, outside of what I read in newspapers or, again, watch on television, I have very little contact with our court system, the police, or crime scenes.

I’m guessing the same applies to the majority of my fellow bloggers.

I wonder how these shows have painted our perceptions of our legal system.  They’re so believable in many ways, aren’t they? The piercing interrogations, the fleshed out detectives and prosecutors, the hard evidence the diligent forensic scientists uncover: it all seems so plausible. That’s how it’s really done, isn’t it?

Well, kind of.

The goal of any fictional show is to be captivating first and “accurate” maybe second or third. Because of things like pacing and conflict, the situations in the show are manufactured, the obstacles created. Editing, camera work, music: they all come together to captivate us.

But the reality is much less exciting. Take away the music and witty dialogue, and a detective’s job, like most jobs, can be pretty mundane.

And real life cases, taken as a whole, can be much less satisfying. At the end of 95% of Law & Order episodes, the bad guy is caught, and we feel that warm relief once the rapist, murderer, thief is pronounced “guilty” in court.

Yet how many cases go unsolved in real life? And outside of large profile cases, who even follows an ordinary murder case for weeks to hear the verdict?

My point is that much of the information we get about the world is second-hand (newspapers, network news, websites) and manufactured (Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, Southland, House) and it’s interesting to think about how that information is presented to us and the effects it has on our understanding of the world.

What do you think?


14 comments on “Television and Reality: What Do We Really Know?

  1. I think that this is a rather timely post- considering all the hoopla surrounding the coverage of the Trayvon shooting in Florida. When I was getting my M.A. in Media Studies, I remember that a couple of professors were doing research on crime shows’ presentation of DNA evidence and court trials. They suspected that the constant depiction of DNA evidence being used to solve a crime would get real life jurors to expect/need DNA evidence to give a guilty verdict. Interesting.

    Criminal justice, eh? I took a police and society class once. the only thing that I remember was watching a “know your rights” video that was basically a how-to guide to get away with driving drunk, high, and/or having a pistol in your car. Oh, and only because of Jay-Z, I know that my glove compartment is safe without a warrant. Thanks Jigga man.

    • I have to listen to more Jay-Z now. Could I possibly learn more about the justice system from him than Law & Order?

      What you mentioned about DNA evidence and juries sounds very similar to an article I read a few months ago. I want to say the trial took place in New York, but it probably didn’t. Anyway, the jury was having difficulty coming up with a verdict because of exactly what you mentioned: they expected hard evidence that without a shadow of a doubt would prove the defendant guilty, as if they were watching CSI. The reality of it is that circumstantial evidence and other “weaker” bits of evidence are necessary to build a case against someone.

      Maybe Jay-Z should instruct juries across the nation?

      • Anna, what kind of voodoo are you doing over there? I’m trying to visit your blog to see what’s up, and WordPress keeps telling me that you don’t exist.

        I’m starting to wonder if I’m stuck in Fight Club.

      • Well that’s both upsetting and relieving. Upsetting that you cannot read of my ventures in racing to the bottom. Relieving in that it explains my embarrassing site stats. I do no voodoo, I swear. There must be some cyber black cloud hanging above the midwest.

        Ooohh, is it bad that when I think of Fight Club I only think of The Pixies and Meatloaf’s man boobs???

      • Ah, there she goes (is your blog a she?).

        If by “bad” you mean supremely awesome, then yes. Your Meatloaf mention reminds me of his opening song in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.

        Please tell me you’ve seen that.

      • OMG, I have! Don’t remember it very well- I remember someone having something burned/shaved/tattooed on their ass.

        “…Or I’ll eat you soul.” I say this to the kids when I’m subbing.

  2. Mike, I did graduate from law school and worked as a lawyer for about a year. I absolutely love Law & Order, every version of it. When I watch it, I am always picking out the violations of criminal and civil procedure and the vast amount of civil right violations exhibited by the characters, but I enjoy it all the same.

    There are very few opportunities for lawyers to exhibit the dramatics in the court room demonstrated by these shows. They don’t get to put on a show like Sam Waterstone. In fact, the actual practice of law most of the time is pretty administrative (boring depending how you look at it). That is why I only practice for a year. Great post as usual.

    • Ah, thank you so much for your perspective. I’m sure that as a former attorney, you certainly wish you could have talked back to judges and magically found a loophole in the law to prosecute or successfully defend someone. 🙂

      It’s funny; I have a few lawyer buddies who absolutely hate practicing law. Even when I was in college and aspiring to go to law school, every lawyer that I met advised against it, haha.

  3. Another great post! My aunt dabbled in law because of Perry Mason. It is amazing the perceptions we have based on television. While the Law and Order/CSI shows have created a certain expectation from some people, what other professions have been painted through rose-colored glasses?

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