Issues in Forensic Science Communication

Feature photo credit to Pixabay

Forensic science has come under great scrutiny since the turn of the century. Scientists often pride themselves on having the ability to evolve as new evidence is presented. But can they adapt their communication skills to better the flow of knowledge delivery to their target audience?

A large part of a scientist’s job includes communicating results to others, whether fellow scientists or funding stakeholders. For a forensic scientist, however, this duty encompass laboratory reports in addition to court testimony. These scientists speak not just to their scientific peers, but also present their findings to people with varying educational and scientific backgrounds, such as judges, juries, lawyers, and law enforcement officers.

Despite the connection between forensic science and stakeholders in the criminal justice field, there is a lack in strong communication of the science between these two groups. There have been many reports in the past decade which delve into the current shortcomings of forensic science—each report notably highlighted communication as a key issue. Reports like those from the National Academy of Science , President’s Council of Advisors on Science, and Technology , National Commission on Forensic Science emphasize measures such as standardized terminology and simplified results to help increase the public’s understanding of forensic science.

To better guarantee comprehension of their findings, forensic scientists must simplify and abbreviate their results. At the same time, they must not over-simplify or diminish the value and context that their reports give to the investigation. There is a delicate balance between confusing the audience with technical details and providing too little information for a proper conclusion to be drawn.

To make matters even more complicated, forensic science is composed of numerous disciplines, each with their own techniques, conclusions and limitations. The way in which a forensic biologist will articulate their conclusions will differ from the communication strategies used by a trace evidence examiner. This difference could confuse jurors, who in turn may place greater value on one finding over another because it sounds more “believable,” though both conclusions are equally valuable.

Jurors today also expect certain types of evidence or testimony due to the CSI Effect. This phenomenon stems from popular reality shows like 48 hours and Dateline, as well as fictional shows such as CSI, NCIS, Dexter, and Bones. While the reality shows portray actual cases, showrunners inject artificial suspense into the narrative to make “good TV.” Though the fictional shows are based in science and depict labs with good budgets (just watch the episode “Power Trip” from CSI: Miami (summarized here) which featured mass spectrometry instruments from Purdue University), they also create drama and fictional plots to grab viewers. These dramatizations provide unrealistic expectations for jurors, who now expect DNA or fingerprint evidence to be presented with every case, which is not realistic or feasible as not every crime will result in such evidence and not every lab has the capability to anlayze such evidence.

Ongoing and past studies, like this review by Lucina Hackerman,  have looked into communication in forensics and science as a whole to create methods for improving scientists’ communication skills, like the DNA primer created by the Royal Society that provides courts a basic understanding of DNA. Since researchers have identified some of the major problems, the next step is for crime labs and training programs to design and implement new approaches, like using standardized terminology and removing monetary barriers to pertinent research in academic journals. These are not trivial obstacles; the latter topic pervades the entire scientific field with little progress made beyond an “open access” option that places significant financial burden on the researcher, rather than on the reader who normally pays a paper access fee. Furthermore, implementing changes in a field tangential to the legal system sparks additional questions, such as who has the final say in what changes to make and how best to implement them nationwide.

Figure 1. Four reasons why forensic scientists struggle with communication. (Created by Caitlyn Wensel)

Currently, the forensic science field is attempting to increase the accessibility of information and streamline the format of their findings. For example, some journals are now switching to an open source format that does not require a person to pay to read their research. Crime lab scientists and forensic science students learn best testimony practices, such as simplifying answers and using familiar analogies when explaining technical information.

People want to know what is being researched, what was found and why they should care.

Combating these communication issues cannot happen only in the courtroom. As new research is published, it should be made available to the general public in a manner in which is easily understood; if not in its original form, then in subsequent press releases and summaries.  Research articles which contain field-specific terms present convoluted narratives with extra information superfluous to the non-science community.  People want to know what is being researched, what was found and why they should care.

Working on communication skills is a lifelong and ever-evolving process, and should be constantly assessed. If forensic scientists allow others (or themselves) to misrepresent or obscure results with poor communication, they fail to properly serve the people they work with, the people they work for, and justice itself.

TitleCommunication, forensic science and the law
AuthorsLucina Hackerman
JournalWIREs Forensic Science

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