There’s not really all that much we can say about Jared Loughner’s mugshot. Like any image that accompanies a news story, it provides context and contains a certain amount of information. The key bit of information this image most readily presents, of course, is “crazy.” If you’re like me, the first time you saw the photo after it was released on Monday, you said out loud to no one in particular, “Oh my God.” And if you’re like me, the next thing you said was, “I hope I don’t have to keep seeing this everywhere.”
And along with the image came the endless discussion. For instance, take this, um, understatement from Global Post:
Viewing the image — and knowing what the subject is accused of doing — leaves many viewers wondering if the man is mentally ill.
Or an excerpt from this ABCNews.com piece, which, speaking of understatements:
Federal officials released Loughner’s mug shot, showing him smiling into the camera despite hints of a black eye.
Amidst the chatter, though, some thoughtful analysis emerged; Slate’s Jack Shafer took it beyond the simplistic “look at this crazy guy” commentary and explored what else the photo revealed about Loughner—namely, a deep, dissociative loneliness. The shaved head, the shaved eyebrows, the bug-eyed zombie grin
It’s a look so dumb he must have rehearsed it in his bathroom mirror since middle school.
And of course, a few (very few) outlets didn’t use it at all. Daniel Foster, for instance, in a blog post for The National Review Online, uploaded the photograph to yfrog and then linked to it with a warning:
I won’t insert it into this post, because it is fairly disturbing. But you can see it here.
The Kansas City Star used it, but then reader representative Derek Donovan wrote a post on the paper’s website about reader complaints the paper received (“No Jared Loughner mug shot on A1, please”):
“It really tears my heart to see him out there,” said one, “because it shows that he’s proud of what he did.”
Paul Farhi in The Washington Post looked at the different ways newspapers across the country decided to use the photograph. For instance, two New York City tabloids made the same choice to replace the green-gray wall behind Loughner with a more menacing—and visually arresting—black background. The Daily News headline “FACE OF EVIL” and the Post’s “MAD EYES OF A KILLER” and the pretty much said all there was to say. Those papers both blew up the photo to fill the whole front page, obviously. Other newspapers made the choice to put the mugshot in a secondary position to photographs from the vigil in Tucson, or to photos of the victims of the shootings. Farhi notes that the decisions that editors made about how to use the photographs is as much a business decision as it is an editorial one:
The differing play, of course, says much about a newspaper’s perception of the news, as well as what its readers expect or accept. The New York tabloids, for example, sell most of their copies on newsstands, not via home subscriptions, which means they must attract attention with bold headlines and cover images.
Likewise, I’ll add, we can assume readers of the The National Review and Kansas City Star may have different sensibilities than New York City tabloid readers. Farhi continues:
The Washington Post, by contrast, chose to illustrate the local effects of the shooting by leading with the vigil photo. “We thought it showed the impact of this crime on Capitol Hill, where some of the victims had worked,” Post editor Marcus Brauchli said. “Our community is one of the communities hard hit by this. The photo reflected that.”
Different audiences, different expectations. Farhi’s point about the New York newsstands also reminded me of a very interesting editor’s note in the latest issue of Mother Jones, in which co-editors Clara Jefferey and Monika Bauerlein discuss why they chose different covers for different versions of the print magazine.