Some news sites suffer from an online mugshot crackdown

News sites that publish mugshots as a service or to attract traffic are being affected by a Google tweak that keeps the photos from the top of search results

Google and payment processing companies are going after for-profit websites that post publicly available arrest photographs and then (in many cases) charge up to $1,000 to have them removed. But changing Google search to stop showing mugshot sites near the top of the results could end up causing collateral damage to some news sites that also post booking photos to draw traffic and ad revenue, though news outlets don’t charge to remove the pictures.

There isn’t a firm estimate of the number of news organizations that have mugshot websites, but Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who helped launch one of the first mugshot websites at The Tampa Bay Times, said he fielded many calls from publishers wanting to create them.

Most of them, he said, are looking for the traffic that the sites bring, though there is a public service component to publishing mugshots that dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War. The British used to arrest people in secret, and the public would never know who was arrested or why. Rebel colonists changed that by publishing the names of those who were wanted or were arrested. But never could they have imagined what’s now being done with these records in the digital age.

“I would fully expect Google to take them out as well if they haven’t already,” Waite said of mugshot websites run by news outlets. “Not only that, I would question why a news organization had these things being indexed in Google in the first place. If you truly ascribe to a standard of ethical practice, there’s really not an argument out there to have these things indexed in Google.”

After being contacted by The New York Times for a story it published earlier this month on the practice of extorting money to remove arrest photos and records from mugshot websites, officials at MasterCard and PayPal announced that they would stop processing payments for the sites. Representatives at Google, who said they’d been examining the issue for months, changed their algorithm last Thursday, making mugshot websites less prominent in search results. The latter change is the one that causes concern to some news organizations.

“Unfortunately, pageviews remain the coin of the realm, and these mugshot websites are pageview machines at almost no cost,” said Waite. “If this were 10 years ago, I would say no big deal. This is a minor thing, and who cares. But unfortunately, now, any loss in revenue is going to be hurtful.”

Greg Rickabaugh, a former police reporter for The Augusta (GA) Chronicle, has published a successful string of newspapers and mugshot websites in Georgia, South Carolina, and California since 2009. Rickabaugh said he has noticed a slight drop in traffic to his sites in the last few days but didn’t know whether to attribute that to Google’s algorithm change. “It may be too early to tell,” said Rickabaugh. “I just wish they could target those that exploit people, not sites like mine that publishes actual editorial content.” Rickabaugh said his company does not charge to remove mugshots, “and we even inform people in how to contact Google to have cached versions of their photographs removed,” he added.

Rickabaugh’s business model proved popular enough to spur his former employer to launch its own mugshot websites—three of them. The Chronicle (where I used to cover cops and government) declined to discuss the sites.

The Journal Star, out of Lincoln, NE, also hosts a mugshot site. Each night, the Journal Star receives an inventory of mugshots from the sheriff’s department, said Editor Dave Bundy. He doesn’t know whether his paper indexes the mugshots with Google or any other search engine (that’s a question best answered by the IT department, he said), but Bundy said new inventory of mugshots overrides the previous night’s batch. In other words, he said, there’s no searchable database for the pictures, unless the paper runs the mugshot with a story.

Unlike other newspapers that operate mugshot websites, Bundy said the Journal Star does not publish end-of-the-month mugshot galleries and does not store the images.

“Ours is different from sites run by other papers, including sister papers within Lee Enterprises,” he added. “We think that it feels slightly less exploitative this way.”

The Tampa Bay Times publishes booking photos as a public service, but the paper has never indexed arrest photos with Google, intentionally choosing to block the search engine’s bots. Publishers have always had that ability, they’ve just chosen not to use it because “they want the traffic,” said Waite. The Times also chooses to delete all images after 60 days, about the time it takes for a case to be adjudicated, Waite added, especially when criminal charges could change, a person is found innocent, or a case is dismissed.

“If your Web application does not reflect the current reality, then you are wrong,” Waite said. “You are publishing knowably false things, and by doing so you are harming people. I have not yet seen a mugshot application that follows each and every case through adjudication and the only [images] that remain in [the system] are of people who have been found guilty. The reason that doesn’t exist is because it is exceedingly hard.”

To do it the right way, Waite said, would mean that mugs would disappear the instant that charges are dropped, cases are thrown out or persons are found innocent. “There doesn’t exist a system where that is possible,” he said.

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Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil. Tags: ,