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Life After 240 Episodes of Forensic Files

You can’t get away with homicide. Have common sense in the real world. Don’t let crime TV shows run your life after you’ve finished the episode. Get ready for the next season in February 2020.


Like every other graduate student, I grade papers and tests while I watch Netflix. The criteria for most other grader’s shows include something light and fluffy, but also funny. And then there’s me, binging 22 minute episodes about homicide trying to deduce who committed the crime before Peter Thomas tells me.

Netflix has 376 Forensic File episodes. I’m currently listening to Episode 353 “As Fault” as I type this article. I’ve become so familiar with the show, I can recognize when they reuse footage or explanations.


While others watch the Office or Parks and Rec, I enjoy learning about the way officers solve crimes, particularly the science of it. As a Scicomm researcher, I study how people communicate science and hone my own skills. Typically I focus in space and nature sciences, so it’s refreshing to learn from a different field.


Takeaway #1

The biggest takeaway from this series is you can’t get away with murder. So don’t make that mistake in the first place. Whenever an incident occurs, evidence is created. Incidentally, the perpetrator creates more evidence when cleaning up.


An arsonist ignites a flame, leaving behind signatures from that fire. Analysts take debris, looking for particular burn patterns, unusual fire paths, and distinctive elements emitted. This combination of information can tell analysts the direction the fire moved, the origins of the flame, and the use of accelerants.


Accidental characteristics from the production and usage of items can create evidence as unique as a fingerprint. In most cases, this refers to tires, and shoes. When you think about it, someone using sneakers to walk around a city will have different wear and tear than someone hiking in a forest everyday. But the concept is used for more than those three instances. In episode 186 “Road Rage,” the unique manufacturing of a singular Bounty paper was a major contributor to solving the case.


If you thought duct tape can used for anything, you’re right. Often the sticky-side can hold fingerprints, fibers, or soil, leading to law enforcement knocking at your door. The tear from snatching a piece can be matched to a direct roll if it’s the most recent piece of tape.


Every time I thought I knew a way to evade the police (from watching the show, that is), only an episode or two later I’m proven wrong. Soil tracked into the car, purchase receipts from stores, and the individual nose print of your pet dog can all be used against you. Even fingerprints left inside of a discarded glove. All of this is before even mentioning GPS, DNA, or any other acronyms.


Takeaway #2

Have common sense. Be skeptical. Some incidents can be avoided by securing your house properly, such as working smoke detectors or door bolts. Other social situations can be from having a friend or family member you trust available for emergencies.


Victims are exactly that — victims. It’s a tragedy what has happened both to them and their families. Learning from other people’s incidents can help prevent future issues.


In many ways, the technology era we live in decreases some of the circumstances. A person is able to text someone if they’re in a compromising situation, or a ride share can help someone get home. There is greater ability to communicate and share locations than there was even twenty years ago.


But that’s one of the problems with binging Forensic Files. The most recent episodes are from the early 2000s, just at the beginning of the smartphone era. While you have information on crimes ranging from the 1950s and the 2000s, there’s little to modern day 2020. Understandably though since the show began in 1996 and there is a wide selection of crimes to chose from.


The series isn’t always about homicide. In one episode, a mysterious illness breaks out in two counties with nothing in common. Another featured accident investigation of a 99-vehicle wreck in Tennessee. A few involve proving somebody is innocent, rather than proving guilt. Occasionally the perpetrator is on screen, throwing the audience a different direction when trying to deduce the guilty party.


In some ways it’s a good reminder that there are people out there who can do harm. Just a frightening nudge to lock your doors and carry pepper spray in large cities at night.


Takeaway #3

Lastly, don’t change your worldview because of a TV show. In communications theory, the idea is known as “Mean World Syndrome.” The idea is long-term, heavy exposure to violence-related mass media content individuals consume creates a cognitive bias, leading the individual to believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.


In terms of Forensic Files, when you watch crime shows on TV, you expect more crime in reality, although that perception is false. The media diet can lead to anxiety, fear, pessimism, desensitization, and other problems.


Psychologist George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory, where Mean World Syndrome stems from, suggests that the exposure to media over time shapes a viewer’s perceptions of reality through messaging and ideas. The content we watch skews how we see the real world.


An inoculation of facts can help prepare someone before consuming crime show media. For example, in 2018, an average of 2.32% of the population were victims to a violent crime. Numbers do not necessarily comfort people though.


Personally, Forensic Files doesn’t alter my worldview on crime. I’ll hear Peter Thomas list off the names of cities I know or have lived in, but the focus isn’t on the crime or how it was committed per-say. It reads like a game of Clue, with the beginning of the riddle starts with a dead body and the answer is an arrest. Forensic Files digs into the details of the science, explaining Luminol in every other episode and DNA in every fourth episode.


Interviews come from every angle. Detectives and police officers describe processes of uncovering potentials evidence and interviewing suspects. Medical examiners and forensic analysts discuss scientific finds in easily-digestible terms. Friends and families share details of the victim or suspect’s life. Attorneys and prosecutors describe the courtroom and final rulings.


There’s more to come

In February, Forensic Files II returns, leaving me less than one month to watch 460 minutes of the old seasons. I’m excited to see the new stories Paul Dowling shares, what the new narrator sounds like, and what more interesting lessons forensic science has to teach me.

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