A man is arrested for breaking into a woman’s home and raping her. His defense? He simply answered an online ad—he says the woman who posted it was soliciting a rape fantasy. But here’s the twist: the woman says the ad wasn’t hers. And when the police investigate, they find it was the woman’s ex-boyfriend who posted the ad as an act of vengeance against her.
This actually happened last year—twice, in fact. Once in real life, last month in the small town of Casper, Wyoming. And once seven months prior to that, on my NBC show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
As one of our TV detectives on SVU might ask, are the two crimes connected? Were these two nearly identical incidents simply coincidence—or did the episode, in fact, give the real criminal the idea?
Were two nearly identical crimes simply coincidence—or did the episode of SVU give the real criminal the idea?
We often grapple with this question at SVU, and we take seriously the implications of the stories we tell. Not only are some of our stories “ripped from the headlines,” but at times we’ve seen headlines that appear to be ripped from our show. A crime like the one in Wyoming appears eerily similar to the one that aired seven months earlier on SVU. But I would argue it’s highly questionable that our show inspired someone to commit a crime.
For one thing, several cases similar to the Wyoming case had occurred before our episode aired—they just hadn’t received as much media attention. And sadly, in today’s anonymous online environment, it was probably only a matter of time before some twisted individual used a Web site like Craigslist to commit a crime of impersonation.
But it’s just as likely that neither are the similarities pure coincidence. When a real-life crime appears to mirror something that happened on SVU—and it happens more often than you’d think—there may indeed be a “connection.”
When I was a writer and producer on the NBC series ER, I stressed the importance of presenting the medical technicalities on the show as accurately as possible. I’ve been a physician myself for 14 years, and I made sure that we used the proper medications and the latest surgical techniques, because viewers, like it or not, obtain a great deal of their medical information from TV. ER was a fictional drama, but viewers still saw it as a realistic depiction of doctors treating patients. I felt I couldn’t hide behind the mantra, “It’s only entertainment,” if viewers were going to take our shows as the medical truth.
With SVU, we do something similar, but with crimes instead of patients. We devise episodes of SVU based on research, interviews, stats, and real crime trends. We cull information from opinion leaders across professional disciplines, including forensic psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and neurology. And we mine journals and Web sites for issues just under the public’s radar. We strive, just as investigative reporters do, to look for patterns and uncover stories.
In a sense, what we’re trying to do is predict crimes that haven’t happened yet. It’s not quite Minority Report—we don’t have oracles lounging in a heated pool. What we have instead is a full-time researcher, Brian Fagan, an aspiring writer who spends every day hunting for ideas. Like one of our TV detectives, he tracks down leads—only he searches blogs, talks to cops and FBI agents, and peruses a wide array of journals including New Scientist, Science News, Journal of American Psychiatry and Technology Review. I tell him if he finds something cool, let me know, and I’ll find a way to work it into an SVU.
We used these methods to craft a recent episode in which DNA was manipulated to implicate an innocent person—in this case, our own Detective Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay. The episode was born when one of our researchers found an astounding article in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics that detailed how small bits of DNA can now be easily amplified and used to taint a crime scene. We thought it was important to bring this breakthrough to the public’s attention in a fictionalized story.
Often our methods involve scrutinizing new technology and predicting how it could be misused. We recently aired an episode in which a man with HIV was infecting women by setting up sexual liaisons through a cell phone app called “Anonymous Quickie.” These new applications are real—they use geo-location software to allows users to arrange a tryst wherever they happen to be at that very moment. Turn on the phone and you’ll find others, gay or straight, who want to meet up for sex and are steps away from you. Undoubtedly, it’s just a matter of time before someone using one of these apps gets into trouble, meeting up with the wrong person—just as we showed on SVU two weeks ago.
The point, then, is that consequences in storytelling matters. We do not present new ways for criminals to exploit the system. On the contrary, we illustrate how new technology can pose threats to our safety.
Other examples: Before much public attention was being paid to the plight of female troops in Iraq being sexually abused by their colleagues, we aired that story. Three years ago, we used an episode to raise the question of whether psychiatrists should train military personnel in torture techniques. And over six years ago, we presented a show questioning whether juveniles’ brains are developed enough to fairly try them as adults. Today, these issues are part of the public debate and are being covered in newspapers and on blogs.
When we present episodes of SVU that are later echoed in real cases, we are responsible in the sense that we have brought to the public’s attention the possibility that crimes of this nature may occur. And on SVU the perpetrators of these crimes are always caught; there are consequences and punishment. But good storytelling is also about the moral ambiguities that often lurk beneath the surface of our criminal cases. And that means presenting some aspects of criminal behavior that spark the interest of actual criminals. Ideas are everywhere and indeed, once in a while, a story may inspire an unbalanced individual to commit a crime in a certain manner.
But if we let ourselves be frozen by the fear that someone might copy something they’ve seen on television, in a novel, or on the Internet, we would soon cease telling stories. Our intent on SVU is not to provide a blueprint for how to commit a crime, it’s to engage the viewer in complex stories that raise ethical issues.
And as any fan of crime drama knows, intent is often what separates the innocent from the guilty.
Neal Baer is the Executive Producer of the NBC hit series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and one of the original writers on ER . A Harvard-trained physician, he is one of the first doctors to write a TV drama.