Journalism (Forensic Science)
For many members of the American public, the journalistic media are the main sources of factual information on the legal system, including the forensic sciences. Unlike fictionalized accounts, which often glamorize forensic endeavors and exaggerate the capabilities of forensic experts and technologies, good journalism has the power to educate the public on the role the forensic sciences play in the legal system.
The press in all its forms—whether reporting in newspapers or magazines, on television or radio, or through Internet news outlets—serves an important purpose within the American legal system. The so-called Fourth Estate keeps the public informed and provides oversight of government entities, including the legal system. The news media often serve as the front line in identifying issues and events that may require legal intervention. Through a process commonly known as investigative reporting or criminal justice reporting, journalists frequently use techniques similar to those employed by forensic specialists to dig for the truth. In fact, reporters who engage in investigative journalism are increasingly becoming known as forensic journalists, and many university journalism schools have initiated classes devoted to instruction in specific forensic techniques that can be used in investigative reporting.
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Depictions of Forensics (Forensic Science)
Until the 1990’s, mainstream journalism frequently shied away from detailed depictions of the forensic sciences. Deeming such information gruesome or exploitative, most media outlets reported on the results of forensic investigations rather than on the actual techniques employed in such investigations. The public, however, has held a fascination for the forensic sciences dating back to well before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes employed such techniques so compellingly. Beyond fictional accounts, the forensic sciences were often relegated to the pages of tabloid newspapers and magazines, which frequently emphasized the most gruesome aspects of the field and ignored the sometimes tedious science behind forensic endeavors.
During the 1990’s, however, a single case catapulted forensic science to the forefront of many journalistic endeavors in the United States. The 1994 slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and the subsequent murder trial of Nicole’s ex-husband, former football star O. J. Simpson, spurred intense media scrutiny that captured the attention of the nation. In fact, the O. J. Simpson trial remains the most publicized in American history, thanks to the extensive, often minute-by-minute, coverage provided by both broadcast and print media.
Although many media outlets were castigated for sensationalizing the trial, the public appeared to have an...
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Impacts of Depictions (Forensic Science)
Although much of the interest in forensic science in the early years of the twenty-first century has been attributed to the glut of television crime investigation dramas, the genesis of these shows can actually be traced back to journalistic depictions of forensics associated with high-profile cases of the 1990’s. When the entertainment industry recognized the public’s fascination with the details of the O. J. Simpson case, for example, it was an easy call to turn that interest into profitable fiction. The industry, however, first tested the waters with more documentary-style real-life crime dramas, such as Court TV’s Forensic Files, which straddled the line between journalism and entertainment. After it became apparent that such programming could pique consumers’ interest, a variety of fictionalized dramas featuring forensics, including Cold Case and the three series in the CSI franchise, soon followed.
The impacts of fictionalized and journalistic depictions of the forensic sciences were both positive and negative. On one hand, they publicized a previously obscure field, spurring interest and provoking a surge in enrollment in university forensic courses. On the other hand, they frequently presented a skewed or inadequate picture of the field that, according to some critics, significantly affected the ability of the legal community to prosecute criminals. Many criminologists came to...
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Journalism as Forensics (Forensic Science)
Journalism has always had a forensic element to it. Often known as investigative journalism or investigative reporting, forensic journalism has played an increasing role in ferreting out legal breaches, and the reporters who practice this form of journalism frequently employ many of the same techniques used by forensic professionals.
Forensic journalism came to the public’s attention most dramatically in the 1970’s. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were young reporters for The Washington Post investigating a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel, Washington, D.C. Five men in business suits and surgical gloves had been arrested with illegal bugging devices. The reporters’ investigation eventually led to the White House and, some experts claim, the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Bernstein and Woodward’s book All the President’s Men (1974), and the film based on the book, recounted the reporters’ investigative efforts, from utilizing confidential informants to identifying accounting discrepancies related to improper use of campaign funds. Since that time, the work of investigative journalists has led to literally thousands of legal cases, involving everything from local scandals to national and international events.
In the twenty-first century, forensic reporters have been at the forefront of several scandals...
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Training in Forensic Journalism (Forensic Science)
Many colleges and universities in the United States offer courses specifically in forensic or investigative journalism techniques. Such training provides practitioners with a working knowledge of the skills they need to conduct in-depth research into events and issues. A wide array of expertise is often required to produce comprehensive, well-documented articles or broadcast reports. Practitioners frequently must work not only with other reporters and editors, but also with legal specialists, accountants, statistical analysts, librarians, and news researchers. Forensic journalists must also be keenly aware of libel laws, public information access rules such as the Freedom of Information Act, and other pertinent directives. Competent journalism schools help students learn to navigate business, government, and legal systems to uncover information that may otherwise go unnoticed by the public.
Some journalism schools have themselves been involved in cracking real cases, setting wrongfully convicted prisoners free by discovering and publicizing new evidence or by reexamining old evidence using forensic techniques that were unavailable at the time the cases were tried. Among the most spectacular of these interventions was the case of Illinois death row inmate Anthony Porter. Porter, with an IQ of just 51, had been convicted in the brutal 1982 murder of a young couple. With the help of a private investigator, a...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Aucoin, James L. The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. Provides a history of the medium from the colonial era to modern times. Also examines how the practice of investigative journalism helped shape the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States.
Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. 1974. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. The two Washington Post reporters who broke the story of the Nixon-era Watergate scandal present a memoir—in political thriller format—of their experiences while they were investigating the story.
De Burgh, Hugo, ed. Investigative Journalism: Context and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2000. Collection of essays explores the history, theory, and practice of investigative journalism and examines key events such as Watergate. Also discusses how the practice of investigative journalism relates to the legal system.
Gibbs, Cheryl, and Tom Warhover. Getting the Whole Story: Reporting and Writing the News. New York: Guilford Press, 2002. Examines the practice of and philosophical issues surrounding investigative journalism. Provides an introduction to the general field of reporting as well as more in-depth discussion of critical investigative reporting techniques.
Houston, Brant, Len Bruzzese, and Steve Weinberg, eds. The Investigative...
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