Once something is on the internet, it can’t be deleted, they say. Enter the jail mugshot. Proven time and again to be an effective way to ruin someone’s life. Especially when they’re innocent. And news agencies have used them to drive traffic to their websites for years, forever memorializing the worst day of someone’s life.
And that’s why some news agencies are rethinking the use of mugshots on their websites. In January, the Houston Chronicle was the latest major newspaper to stop putting mugshots on its website of those who have been arrested but not yet convicted. In an email to the Marshall Project, Managing Editor Mark Lorado said of the decision against posting mugshots on the paper’s website, “We’re better than that.”
The paper even got an unlikely supporter: “Thank you, @HoustonChron for doing the right thing,” tweeted Jason Spencer, spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “I’m hopeful that other media outlets and law enforcement agencies will follow your lead and rethink the practice of publicly shaming arrested people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.”
Others have raised the same concerns. “It creates this situation when you’re criminalizing folks before they’re convicted of any crime,” says Johnny Perez, a former New York prisoner who’s currently the director of U.S. prison programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It also creates biases where none exists, he said: “People of color are already more likely to be found guilty than their white counterparts.”
Matt Waite, a former reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, a daily newspaper in Florida, explained how a decade ago he helped the paper scour law enforcement websites to gather images to display on its website to attract traffic. Right away, he saw it would lead to problems. “Legally, it’s public record — but legal is not always right.”
He worked with the paper to fix the problem but still wonders about the images already posted on the internet. And Waite knew all too well about having a mugshot on the internet. He was arrested in 2010 for drugs when his own mugshot spread across the internet. “I was struggling with addiction and the entire internet seemed to be making fun of” me, he said. After prison, he got into journalism and today is a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Some news agencies stopped using mugshots simply because focusing on local crime made the paper’s community look bad. In 2018, the Biloxi Sun Herald took down the mugshots on its website and stopped reporting on low-level crimes in the area, worried it could create a false impression of southern Mississippi.
Some news outlets have even stopped using the names of people charged with crimes. Last year, Cleveland.com/Advance Ohio made changes to its crime coverage by not naming the accused and not using mugshots. “We finally decided we’re causing suffering here,” Editor Chris Quinn said.
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