Fact vs Fiction

Through cinema and television, we are exposed to many different representations of real-life occurrences. However, these things can often be misleading as tv shows will sacrifice realism for something that is more appealing to the viewer. Autopsies and procedures surrounding a death investigation are no different and, more times than not, stray very far from anything seen in the real world.

One of the biggest things these shows will get wrong is the basic procedure around how authorities communicate and receive information from forensic teams. In many crime shows we are shown the main officers going to a morgue and speaking with a forensic pathologist about the results of the autopsy. This is completely wrong. All results from an autopsy are put into a written report which will be sent out the appropriate authorities and the people leading the investigation will rarely have access to see the body. This is all so that everyone can effectively communicate and access information related to the case without needing to waste too much time playing 20 questions with the coroner. Another part of this that is incorrect is the way many tv shows will imply that their characters simply pop down to the morgue as if it is in the same building. There are no morgues that are directly connected to these types of buildings or even work directly with these types of law enforcement units. Morgues that are used for autopsies generally provide this service to any number of organisations this also means there will be multiple different people who work there meaning we shouldn’t be seeing the same character over and over again.

The other major way tv shows and movies get this stuff wrong is in the autopsy itself. When we are shown an autopsy in television the main issues will usually involve technique and general look of the body. While special effects have come a long way and we are able to create very realistic depictions of the human body Hollywood seems to not be able to get very simple things right. Things such as the main incision not extending far enough or the fact that autopsies involve multiple people not just one forensic pathologist. In an autopsy room there should be at least three people; the main forensic pathologist, their assistant also called a ‘diener’ (German for helper), and the autopsy photographer who documents all the findings. The other and probably biggest issue with many on screen depictions of autopsies is the seemingly easy ability to find out exactly what has happened to the deceased from a series of small clues. This is completely inaccurate as there can always be any number of causes for these minor findings and linking them in a totally circumstantial way is not how conclusions should be drawn. The only way even an incredibly experienced forensic pathologist can make conclusions is after all evidence has been gathered and laid out. This evidence will also include lab results which is a highly underrepresented part of autopsies. Some shows and movies will even depicting the forensic pathologist being the one to analyse samples which never happens in real life.