Date of Degree

9-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Saul Kassin

Committee Members

Angela Crossman

Steven Penrod

Kyle Scherr

Tarika Daftary-Kapur

Subject Categories

Criminology and Criminal Justice | Experimental Analysis of Behavior | Law and Psychology | Other Film and Media Studies | Other Psychology

Abstract

Psychology and law researchers have urged colleagues to collaborate with the makers of popular media, such as documentary filmmakers, in efforts to educate the general public about wrongful convictions (Kassin, 2017; Wells et al., 2000). Recently, programs depicting wrongful convictions, such as Making a Murderer (Demos & Ricciardi, 2015) and When They See Us (DuVernay, 2019) have garnered substantial viewership. Research on general and case-specific pretrial publicity (Daftary-Kapur et al., 2014; Kovera, 2002) and the effects of crime media (Baskin & Sommers, 2010; Schweitzer & Saks, 2007) demonstrate that although consuming crime-related media and being exposed to information about a criminal trial can influence jurors’ attitudes, these effects do not always translate into informed case decisions (Holmgren & Fordham, 2011; Kim et al., 2009). This research aimed to answer the following question: does exposure to commentary on the risk factors of wrongful conviction, such as eyewitness errors and false confessions, lead viewers to become more discriminating as jurors, voting to convict when the primary evidence contains little empirical risk, while voting to acquit when that evidence contains significant empirical risk?

In an online study, I examined the effects of both naturalistic and experimental exposure to wrongful conviction-related media. People who reported having never watched or listened to at least one popular wrongful conviction show or podcast (naïve participants) were randomly assigned to watch one of three documentary-style videos. Two of these videos included descriptions of real cases that involved either a false confession or eyewitness misidentification with research psychologists explaining the risk factors involved in each case. The third group watched an unrelated control video and the fourth group reported having been exposed to wrongful conviction media naturally.

All participants were presented with one of four versions of a murder case summary that varied the primary type of incriminating evidence that was presented (eyewitness identification vs. confession) and the presence or absence of the risk factors that were detailed in each video (high-risk vs. low-risk). This resulted in a 4 (media exposure: naïve-false confession video, naïve-eyewitness error video, naïve-control video, natural exposure-no video) x 2 (evidence type: eyewitness identification vs. confession) x 2 (evidence reliability: high-risk vs. low-risk) between-subjects design.

Control viewers who had no prior exposure to wrongful conviction related media made decisions that were consistent with the evidence: conviction rates were higher when the evidence featured a low-risk eyewitness identification or confession. Although exposure to a wrongful conviction-related video did lower conviction rates compared to control viewers, participants did not significantly discriminate between the high- and low-risk versions. These results indicate that viewership of wrongful conviction stories may not make viewers discerning jurors, but rather skeptical overall. These findings are consistent with research on the “CSI effect” and expert testimony showing that exposure to information depicting unreliable evidence does not necessarily change viewers’ mock juror decision-making.

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