Some people’s worst days live forever on the internet, regardless of what happened in the days and weeks immediately following. Mugshots are a staple of newspaper and television news websites. Haunted, angry, ashamed, and bloody eyes stare out from the screen. Anyone can find out their name, height, age, and birthdate, and of course, what they were arrested for.
Multiple studies show police are more likely to pull over Black motorists and stop (and frisk) Black people, leading to more arrests. Mugshot galleries can reinforce to viewers the criminality of black people. This intersection of race, media, policing, and justice shouldn’t go unexamined.
“It's also an example of how media builds systems to amplify the position of police and authorities at the expense of the individual,“ Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV Critic and and MSNBC/NBC’s Media Analyst, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “It broadcasts the police and prosecutor's allegations against an arrested person with a level of prominence that can affect the public.”
Drug possession, DUIs, batteries, domestic disputes, resisting arrest, trespassing, and long lists of things that can go wrong in a life, published online, for the world to see. A moment, or a lifetime, of trouble has a second life, digitally.
Legal, but ethical?
It is legal for the papers to publish these rogue galleries. But is it ethical? Starting at the most basic, the SPJ Code of Ethics has a few related principles.
From Seek Truth & Report It:
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
- Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
- From Minimize Harm:
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
The Tampa Bay Times’ Mugshot page explains that the Bay area’s vaunted paper of record takes the mugshots directly from the county sheriff’s websites, publishing the information exactly as posted (without corrections), and that the mugshots remain searchable 60 days from the booking date. It also explains that, “Every such person is presumed innocent. Neither the sheriffs' booking records nor this site will show the outcome of any case or disposition of any charge.”
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s sarasotamugshots.com used to have disclaimers on its front page and each mugshot page, which said that people are presumed innocent, and showing them is a public service. The paper used to keep the mugshots up for a maximum of 90 days.
But now, sarasotamugshots.com—like all Gannett-owned properties—has a message from editors detailing an “editorial decision to discontinue the publication of mugshot galleries, or mugshot photos that are not associated with a story or other editorial content, effective immediately.”
Gannett has recently made the decision to remove mugshot galleries (which are big-click items) from its newspaper websites pic.twitter.com/D6jfOBJBmx— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) June 9, 2020
“Mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value,” the message says. “Instead, we will focus on the best ways to inform our readers by providing relevant information that will keep our communities safe and continuing to cover crime, as well as the public safety system.”
This new policy change at the Herald-Tribune, however, does not impact the use of mugshots associated with articles or other editorial content at the paper.
While it doesn’t seem any Tampa Bay television news websites have rogue galleries, mugshots still show up on broadcast news sites around the state. WTXL in Tallahassee was such a station until last year, but in May, they decided to take down its popular page. Matt Brown, the General Manager, asked some pointed questions in an article:
“Are arrests for minor crimes newsworthy? Does publishing these booking reports make our community a better place? Are we simply pandering to lurid curiosity? Are we ruining people’s lives or shaming people in our community for minor mistakes?”
Brown wrote later that the overwhelming response to WTXL’s decision was positive.
“I received more emails in that one-week time period on that subject than I did during the entire year. 85% positive. Internal response was very supportive,” Brown wrote. “We discussed the ethics and impact of publishing it—that really gave the staff a better understanding than the “we’ve always done it this way” reaction they’d had before.”
He added that the biggest takeaway for his team was that it has to hold its work up to a microscope on a regular basis and ask if it truly serves the community and meets our standards.
Mugshot pages bring traffic to websites, which is coin in the digital world. That leaves us with the age old conundrum of because we can do something, should we?
Right to be forgotten
What are the ethical remedies? Put a note about the outcome in mugshots and stories? Remove the mugshot after a certain amount of time? Or is removing from searchable databases enough? There is an emerging conflict between the right to be forgotten and the right to publish.
The right to be forgotten hasn’t gained traction in the U.S. yet. It is a personal privacy movement growing in response to the reach and depth of the internet. A standard in Argentina for more than a decade, the right to be forgotten was codified into law in the European Union as part of a data and human rights platform, but exemptions were carved out for media companies.
There hasn’t been a significant test of the right to be forgotten in the context of the U.S.’ First Amendment yet, though there have been earlier decisions shaping privacy.
At a tipping point
The Houston Chronicle decided in January to end its mugshots page. It was publicly thanked on Twitter by the local sheriff’s spokesperson for doing so, saying he hoped others would follow their lead and stop “publicly shaming arrested people.”
Mugshots online pages take minimal human effort. They are mostly populated by bots that scrape the local law enforcement websites and publish the information. They don’t correct erroneous information, nor issue corrections. They are more akin to stock market and tide tables for the media outlet than news. But the tide table does not haunt the fisherman years later.
The FAQ section of the mugshot page in the Tampa Bay Times still refers to itself as the St. Petersburg Times, so clearly no one has really updated it for years.
It's also worth pointing out that the Tampa Bay Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and organization that prides itself as a beacon for journalism ethics. On February 11, Poynter even published an article outlining the many problems with Tampa Bay Times' own mugshot website. The mugshot gallery's creator, former employee Matt Waite, even expressed regret, calling it "a digital scarlet letter.” And, according to Poynter, he still "harbors complicated feelings about the final product."
CL reached out to Tampa Bay Times Executive Editor Mark Katches for thoughts on his newspaper’s mugshot gallery as well as its policy on using mugshots in editorial. We’ll update this post when he responds.
It would be time consuming to publish mugshot pages in ways that complied with the SPC Code of Ethics. To correct, update, and gather information, provide context, allow the individual to respond to their mugshot would conceptually move mugshots from neutral data to reporting. Still, that idea is being floated in professional journalism groups.
Cory Hutchins at the Columbia Journalism Review wrote that, “While it’s not inherently unethical to publish mugshots, some media ethics specialists argue that newsrooms should contextualize such images for readers, articulate the public-service value of disseminating them, and pursue the stories of their subjects after the photos are taken.”
Deggans was the media critic at the then St. Petersburg Times when the mugshot gallery launched. He was critical of it then, and told CL that he’s a strong believer that unfair systems are often built on small choices and small events.
“Creating a media structure where people of color are over represented visually as lawbreakers, helps feed a system where they are over-policed and unfairly treated as lawbreakers,” Deggans added. “So I think journalists should think very carefully about how they use mugshots, and should avoid creating websites or galleries collecting them together. “
There should be additional focus though on the call to minimize harm section in the code of ethics. Mugshot pages may give media sites their needed clicks, and might be justified as providing a public service by publishing public information. But newspapers don’t publish 60 or 70 individual’s phone numbers on a weekly basis, and those too are public information.
It is hard to justify mugshot pages within the context of an ethical media, and it seems that the media is on its way to eliminating them.
UPDATED: 06/10/20 1:20 p.m. This post has been updated to include comments from Matt Waite, who created the Times' mugshot gallery.
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