As seen on TV? The real promise of forensic science.

A steady diet of crime dramas has distorted Americans’ view of the justice system. Can real-life forensic science live up to the on-screen hype?

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Technician Kambrie Kissmann discharges a gun into a firing tank at the Houston Forensic Science Center on Feb. 24, 2021.

What is it about crime shows? After a long day, millions of people unwind by delving into the grisly details of a horrific crime. Some observers argue that these shows appeal because they invite viewers to explore the baser side of humanity from a safe distance. 

Perhaps. But such programs also show another side of humanity: the undeterred pursuit of truth. For every depraved criminal depicted, dozens of detectives, prosecutors, and forensic investigators toil to find justice. There’s something comforting, if not overly simplistic, in that idea.

In the April 26 cover story, Henry Gass introduces readers to some of the real-life professionals investigating such crimes. Like any good police procedural, there are good guys and bad guys – and they don’t necessarily sit on the expected side of the fence. 

Crime dramas have been around since the early days of television. The world’s first whodunit, “Telecrime,” aired live in Britain in 1938. A decade later, “The Plainclothesman,” the first American police procedural, put viewers in the shoes of an unnamed lieutenant as he solved crimes in tidy 30-minute episodes.

The genre has since become ubiquitous, with shows about law enforcement making up nearly 20% of all scripted programming in the 2019-20 network television season. That’s not to mention the endless array of cable and streaming offerings. 

This steady diet of crime dramas has left many viewers with a distorted view of the justice system. On screen, state-of-the-art crime labs regularly produce definitive forensic evidence in a matter of hours, inflating the public’s expectations. One survey found that nearly half of jurors expect every criminal case to include some kind of scientific evidence. In reality, most police departments do not have access to the kind of forensic analysis seen on TV. Even if they did, forensic science is never going to be as certain as screenwriters make it seem.

The public has discovered these limitations the hard way. Hundreds of convictions have been overturned due to faulty forensic evidence. Some forensic investigators and technicians have exploited public faith in their discipline to pass off shoddy work. 

But in Houston, Henry introduces us to a forensic scientist leading the charge to lift his profession up to the standards that the public has come to expect. Peter Stout knows better than most how messy investigations can be. Perfection may never be a reasonable expectation, but he sees forensic science as the best tool for finding “a just result.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to As seen on TV? The real promise of forensic science.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today