On Mugshots and Cover Photos

(And giving your readers what they want)

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.”

If only. Soon, the photo was copied and pasted everywhere, from the Times to Perez. We can’t seem to look away.

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.

For the January/February issue, regular subscribers at home got a cover featuring Mac McClelland’s piece “Aftershocks,” a difficult and important investigation into Haiti’s post-disaster rape crisis. (CJR previously praised the article here.) “GREETINGS FROM HAITI,” declares the text on the cover. “Disaster profiteers, AWOL aid, Rape gangs, & the badass women who are fighting back.” The cover photo depicts a small child looking up at his mother. Up in the high right corner of the cover is smaller text, “Pot Goes Wall Street.”

That refers to another long feature in the issue, “Joint Ventures,” by Josh Harkinson; it’s a story about two “righteous business dudes” who “want to leverage California’s lucrative ganja industry.” And that’s the cover story on the version of Mother Jones that sat out on newsstands. The newsstand cover photo depicts the two dudes in question, with the text “WEEDMART. Marijuana superstore. Wall Street IPO. Reality TV shot. Meet the cocky entrepreneurs at the vanguard of the pot boom.”

The editors explain:

Mother Jones is not immune to the pressure of newsstand sales: Sure, we’re a nonprofit, but we supplement readers’ support with every extra penny we can find. And that means getting casual browsers about to board a five-hour flight to pick up this magazine. With that in mind, we agonized more than usual about this issue’s cover options.

The Haiti story, while compelling, is “a tough sell on the newsstand…..rape gangs are pretty heavy stuff to hit a new reader with on our first encounter.” The pot story, on the other hand, was an entertaining read, but the editors were afraid it might “reinforce musty clich├ęs of MoJo as a counterculture relic.” Unable to choose between the covers, they decided to run both. They hope that casual newsstand browsers will be grabbed by the light fare and then get pulled in to the magazine’s signature harder-hitting stuff, while regular readers have already demonstrated that they can stomach the “bummer stories.”

It’s a pretty smart experiment, to pull in different audiences with different methods. And along the way, in explaining the decision-making process, Jeffery and Bauerlein also encourage their readers to congratulate themselves. You’re in the club, they are telling you. You want the real reporting, the—as they put it—“visceral, non-sugar-coated journalism.” In fact, the headline of the editor’s note reads:

You Can Handle the Truth
Media pundits say tough stories drive readers away. Thanks for proving them wrong.

It’s not a new idea for news organizations to think about what their readers expect, and to try to give them what they want. These are the kinds of conversations that go on every day in newsrooms, of course. But the case of the Loughner mugshot and the Mother Jones double-cover experiment show that the context, the medium in which the readers are accessing the content changes those expectations, too. The sharpest, most agile newsrooms will be the ones that keep those shifting expectations in mind.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner