Fact vs. Fiction: Criminology & Criminal Justice Careers


It’s important that anyone looking toward pursuing a career in criminology and criminal justice know that they will receive a new perspective on the world that no one else has. As a law enforcement professional, criminal psychologist, corrections officer, or in any other career in this industry you will do and see things that run the gamut of emotion. You will be amazed, amused, and excited one moment, and shocked by a painful or tragic moment the next. It’s the nature of the career, and while it can be a rewarding and positive experience, it can also be difficult and trying, too.

The truth is, a career in criminology and criminal justice is not like it is on television and in the movies. The endings aren’t always successful, the criminals aren’t always brought to justice, and the officers can’t always save the day. People entering a position in criminology and criminal justice are passionate and proud to wear the uniform and do what they do. They are part of a team, a brotherhood of heroes who are dedicated to making their community a better place, but they must always remain cognizant that this is real life, not fiction.

What we see on television, even on “reality” television, is rarely true to life. In the world of criminal justice on television, many occupations simply don’t exist, and those that do are often embellished. “When we see an occupation on TV, there is a small but limited relationship to how that occupation really is,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Learning about an occupation from watching a TV show is like learning how to parent kids by watching sitcoms.”

Some of the most-watched TV dramas in the past and present revolve around law enforcement, criminal investigation, and the courtroom. On any given night you’ll see police and criminal investigators working to collect and examine evidence, interview witnesses, track down a suspect, and get a confession. On another station, a lawyer gives a passionate speech to convince the judge or jury to return a favorable verdict and bring justice to a client. And it all happens in less than an hour, wrapped up before the nightly news. Do events like this really happen? Rarely.

In reality, crime fighting and legal work is complicated and at times painstakingly slow. On television the job of a team is usually condensed into one catchall person who does everything from forensics to interrogation and still has time for a social life. In reality, each crime-solving worker has a specific task. For example, when an investigation is triggered, a uniformed police officer is usually the first on site and will secure the crime scene. If need be they will call for detectives to investigate and interview any witnesses or suspects. Crime scene analysts arrive to recover physical evidence like fingerprints, DNA, and to photograph, diagram, and chronicle the scene. When the evidence gets to the lab there is a team of specialists who are experts in unique areas such as fingerprint comparison, chemical testing, firearms, or DNA. After that, every member of the team must document his or her work in a report.

This isn’t to say that every show on television is inaccurate, because all shows are somewhat based on real careers, and some even follow real law enforcement personnel into the field. Whether it’s the long-running “Cops,” the unflinching “First 48,” or “Crime 360,” there are television shows that strive to present a more realistic view into the lives of criminal justice professionals. What’s most important is that whether you’re a seasoned criminal justice professional or just looking into a new career path, make sure to separate the fact from the fiction in television and movies’ portrayal of criminology and criminal justice.