Mugshot galleries might be a web-traffic magnet. Does that justify publishing them?

During a conference call with employees in the Lee Enterprises newspaper chain this summer, an editor at the Times of Northwest Indiana explained a secret behind her paper’s online traffic boom. Mugshots, she shared in a presentation, had been a “game-changer” for the paper, which includes collections of booking photos below its crime stories and standalone galleries of recent arrestees.

For some local newsrooms, mugshots—which are often public records, and easy to obtain from local law enforcement—remain a staple, even as others turn away from them. North Carolina’s Salisbury Post runs a “Mugshot Monday” feature, which it launched after the paper ceased publishing its Monday and Saturday editions, to provide web content that wouldn’t fill the next day’s print news hole. “It usually is the most popular thing on the website for that particular day,” says Editor Elizabeth Cook. In Colorado Springs, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gazette publishes a “Mugshot Monday” feature, too, limited to those people sought by law enforcement on federal warrants. In Waterloo, Iowa, The Courier runs a lengthy gallery scroll of mugshots, each one accompanied by a link to a short synopsis of the incident, under this disclaimer: “An arrest does not imply guilt or a conviction.”

ICYMI: Even ethical journalism can have collateral damage

Mugshot galleries rarely divulge more than a subject’s name, age, and suspected offense; their subjects rarely attract follow-up coverage, and so the outcomes of their criminal charges are often not covered in detail. In such cases, mugshot subjects are preserved for readers as suspects. In others, follow-up coverage may come too slowly. A few years ago, a small-town newspaper in Colorado published 39 mugshots in a single print edition after local police announced what it characterized as a busted-up drug ring. The charges against many of those whose faces appeared in their local paper were later dropped amid allegations of a frame-up and a remarkable blunder by local law enforcement. Some of those accused said they lost jobs and housing or relocated because they couldn’t find work. Though the paper followed up on the dismissals, its editor acknowledged it was slow to do so.  

My question would be: Is it fair to people if you don’t show the disposition of the case?

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.

“I’m not going to condemn someone” for publishing mugshots, says Ted Gest, a founding partner of John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime, and Justice. As a journalist, Gest says he favors information about the criminal justice system being available and publishable. However, he adds, “My question would be: Is it fair to people if you don’t show the disposition of the case?”

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

Journalists should seek to minimize harm while telling the truth, says Bastiaan Vanacker, who directs the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. “If the benefit of publishing it is just, Well, it happened … I don’t think that’s a good enough reason,” he says.

“Best practice would be to follow up on every single case,” says Kelly McBride, a media ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute. Though McBride wonders whether artificial intelligence might facilitate such efforts in the future, most newsrooms these days just don’t have the human resources to do so, she says.

Cook, the Salisbury Post editor, says her paper will do follow-up stories if a criminal suspect later shows the newspaper they were found not guilty or charges were dropped. For its “Mugshot Monday” feature, the Post lists charges, not convictions—something Cook says her paper will make more clear to readers in the future. Plenty of newsrooms, however, seem unwilling to discuss their decision to publish mugshots. In 2016, Fusion looked at 74 newspapers, mostly owned by the McClatchy and Tribune Publishing chains, and found 40 percent of them published mugshot galleries online. Not many editors were willing to talk to Fusion about the practice.

There are ways to mitigate potential harm. “The newsrooms that do this well have programmed their sites to only keep the information for 60 to 90 days, so that it doesn’t become punitive,” says Poynter’s McBride.

Look, I chase traffic just as much as anyone else, but that’s the wrong way to get traffic. You’re really preying on human suffering there, and I don’t think that’s what we should do.

This summer, Advance Ohio President Chris Quinn announced that Cleveland.com would scrub its archives of mugshots and names of story subjects who committed minor crimes under certain circumstances, if those subjects ask. The plan also includes curtailing the use of mugshots in the future, limiting them only to those accused of serious crimes. While Quinn says some staffers likened the change to erasing published history, “I can’t use tradition to wreck people’s lives.” Last month, Cleveland.com expanded the initiative, which is not companywide, to include embarrassing stories that might not even involve crimes. The publication set up a newsroom committee to evaluate personal requests to delete names from old stories on a case-by-case basis.

“Look, I chase traffic just as much as anyone else, but that’s the wrong way to get traffic,” Quinn tells CJR about the proliferation of mugshots on local newspaper sites. “You’re really preying on human suffering there, and I don’t think that’s what we should do.”

Hunter Pauli, a freelance journalist in Montana, says he quit his job at a Lee Enterprises newspaper last year in part because he had to write so many stories about people accused of minor crimes. “As the sole crime reporter at a daily paper in Butte, Montana in charge of putting out the daily blotter, I found the process for deciding which poor residents of my city to shame completely arbitrary,” he wrote last year in The Guardian:

There’s almost never enough real crime worth covering, but if a couple nasty assaults occurred there might not be room to include some poor guy getting caught with a gram of meth. If nothing happened the next day, maybe that user would go in. The blotter was often all minor drug arrests. …When I stopped including simple drug arrests in the blotter nobody noticed, not even my editors, which begs the question of why we consider minor drug crimes worthy of attention in the first place.

“You take the crime statistics, they’re going down. You check any newspaper website, it looks like the end of the world,” says Pauli. He adds, “I don’t think journalists should be surprised that people hate the media in this country if that’s what you’re printing.”

Asked to discuss the NWI Times mugshot galleries, editor Marc Chase wrote in an email that his paper had “a number of strategies,” namely aggressive local news coverage and regular updates to breaking stories, that have helped double its web traffic. “Couple that with a strong focus on investigative and project reporting, and those are the game-changers we see making the biggest differences,” he wrote. He did not respond to a question about how the paper’s online mugshot galleries fit into its increased web traffic.

In late August, the NWI Times posted a link to a mugshot gallery on its Facebook page. “I love it…keep them coming,” one reader wrote. Another questioned the practice. “I don’t see the purpose it serves,” wrote the second reader, “other than for people to come here, and get a quick laugh from the mugshots.”

From the archives: Journalism’s strained relationship with police

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.