A growing number of media outlets are banning the publication of police mugshots–and in some cases, removing them from digital archives, in the wake of a national reckoning on racial justice that followed the murder of George Floyd last summer in Minnesota.
Both the Chicago Tribune and St. Louis Post Dispatch have adopted new policies in recent months. The Tribune announced in February that it would reconsider using mugshots with news stories and remove previously published mugshots. The Post-Dispatch stopped publishing mugshot galleries last year.
The Tribune’s new guidelines will “prioritize public safety, news judgment and compassionate coverage, and acknowledge inconsistencies in the criminal justice system that affect which mugshots are released and published online,” said the paper’s editor-in-chief, Colin McMahon.
Mugshot photos will still be published when there is a public safety concern or if they have a particularly high news value under the Tribune’s new policy.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch changed its policy in late 2020.
“Last year we stopped publishing online mugshot galleries that had been compiled monthly based on stories and mugshots posted earlier for major crimes we had covered,” said Gilbert Bailon, the paper’s editor-in-chief.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has since ceased using monthly mugshot galleries and has a policy for publishing mugshots based on the severity of the crime committed.
“The Post-Dispatch will publish a mugshot, if available, after a person has been charged with a major crime,” Bailon said. “We don’t cover or publish mugshots for minor crimes.”
While the St. Louis Post Dispatch does not remove previously published content, it does update the status of crime or court stories as they unfold, which would include whether an individual’s criminal charges have been reduced or dismissed.
Other news outlets already had started rethinking their mugshot policies before the protests last summer. In Ohio, Cleveland.com changed its practice in 2018, limiting the number of mugshots published, no longer naming individuals accused of minor crimes and removing the names of those previously published who had their records expunged of minor crimes. Lawmakers also are looking closely at the practice, which could limit access to the photos in the first place. In Utah, the state legislature adopted a measure last week that would prohibit publication of mugshots until individuals are criminally charged.
The Cleveland digital news website started considering changes to its mugshot policies in 2015.
“The idea was hotly contested in our newsroom, with about half the people objecting to the changing of our archives,” said Editor Chris Quinn. “Because it was so sensitive, we continued to talk about it for a few years before finally making the decision to begin the policy in 2018.”
Cleveland.com readers initially had some criticisms of the new policy, but they quickly diminished as positive results became apparent.
“The result of what we have been doing the past few years has been relief for a great many people who were tormented by our archived stories. Some have sent notes expressing gratitude that they can finally move on with their lives,” Quinn said.
He hopes that more news outlets will follow and adopt similar policies as best practice. “With so many newsrooms now moving in this direction, I feel more confident that we will, indeed, come to a consensus on the best way to handle this issue,” he said.
WRTV Indianapolis updated its mugshot policy in July of last year, following the protests concerning racial justice and police reform. The station now only uses the names and mugshots of individuals formally charged with crimes, rather than simply upon arrest.
“We really have to balance giving the public the information that they need with the potential harm that can be caused to the people impacted by our coverage,” Digital Director Jen Brown told GJR.
Florence Chee, director of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago, is glad to see the ethics of mugshots coming into discussion.
“Who is getting arrested and why? How does this process affect someone’s reputation and life prospects, when their arrest becomes the first hit in a search for their name in the future?” Chee said. “These are examples of why it is important to consider ethics surrounding this practice.”
To Chee, mugshots aren’t essential to a good news story.
“We are seeing that they are not necessary when set against the potential harm that could be caused to someone who is arrested,” she said. “There are ample examples of good journalism and reporting that does not rely upon mugshots and does respect the humanity of all parties involved.”
William Drummond, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said the answer to the ethical dilemma is not easily simplified.
“Routine publication of mugshots as slideshows are gratuitous. Those slideshows feed morbid curiosity,” Drummond said. “But what about the gentlemen caught in prostitution stings or child trafficking roundups? What about particularly notorious homicide or kidnapping cases when an arrest has been made? Doesn’t the public need to be reassured?”
Drummond covered the assassination of former president John F. Kenendy in 1968 while in Los Angeles. He argued that publishing the assassin’s mugshot was important to the story.
“Sirhan Bishara Sirhan was arrested at the scene. Under the new mugshot rule, the newspaper would not have run his picture after his arrest,” Drummond said. “That would have been a big mistake.
But there are cases where mugshots are not needed in a news story and can have negative effects on not only the individuals in the photographs but on communities as a whole.
“No question the publication of jailhouse photos reinforces racial stereotypes, said Drummond, who mentored inmate journalists at San Quentin State Prison and wrote a book about advising its newspaper called “Prison Truth.” “Blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be arrested for the exact same behavior, because of longstanding police bias. Decisions should be made on a case by case basis.”
Brianna Connock is an Ohio-based correspondent double-majoring in journalism and political science at the University of Cincinnati. Along with her work at Gateway Journalism Review, she is a features reporter for The News Record.