Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.
But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.
Last month, the Houston Chronicle became the latest major paper to take that plunge. At an all-hands staff meeting, the paper’s editors announced their decision to stop posting slideshows of people who have been arrested but not convicted—and who are still presumed innocent under law.
The media outlets discussed in this piece by Poynter aren’t cutting ties to mugshots like this, as editors note in the story:
The paper will still use booking photos when they have news value. Lorando said the paper does not generally remove or edit stories that were accurate when they were published.
A criminal mugshot is like any other tool in your journalistic toolbox: You want to use it for the right reason and be able to explain how it helps your audience understand the story you want to tell. I know that I’ve run more than a few mugs with stories I’ve done or encouraged students to include them with stories at student papers I’ve advised.
In one case, a man suspected of drunken driving ran over a young boy who was on a bicycle. The man tried to speed off with the kid stuck under the car, dragging the boy for several yards. Neighbors in the area came running out to stop the guy and get the kid help.
Then, they turned on man, dragging him out of the car and beating him bloody. The mug shot of this man told a story of a person who was both an accused criminal as well as a victim of a crime. We felt the image added perspective to the situation. This was especially true when the police were looking for people who were involved in the beating, only to find that nobody in the area saw anything…
Another beating story ran at the Ball State Daily News, in which six female students at the school dragged another woman out of a party and attacked her. The police described the beating as “deplorable.” We ran all six mugshots across the top of the paper to showcase who was involved. I can still see the smirks on two of these women’s faces, looks that seemed to say, “You can’t touch me. My Daddy has the world’s best lawyer.”
The mugshot is a public record, and as such, you have a legal right to use it. However, this is where the ethics of journalism come into play and you need to ask yourself if you SHOULD use it.
A few key questions to ask before using a mugshot, or running any kind of content for that matter, might include:
- Does this add value to the story I want to tell for my readers?
- Will my choice do more harm than good?
- What are the potential ramifications of my actions, particularly ramifications that are of a long-term variety?
- Why do I want to do this?
- What is the best counter-argument to the choice I want to make right now? Is it good enough to flip the argument?