Mugshots: to publish or not to publish

A suggestion has recently come forward at the newspaper to publish the mugshots of people booked into the Gallatin County jail on our website. We’d put this into a slideshow for all the world to see and be entertained by.

Gates1977We certainly would not be the first website to do so. The Smoking Gun has been curating a gallery of mug shots for years. There’s also Mugshots.net and Mugshots.com, which both claim huge archives of celebrity and common criminal mugs alike. In 2007, an Orlando-based entrepreneur even started a print paper devoted to the embarrassing little photos. And here’s another.

Straight news organizations are also in the game. The Chicago Tribune does it. A few more: the Richmond Times-Dispatch; the Star News of Wilmington, N.C.; Newsday; and the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., to name just a few rounded up in a Google search.

The argument for publishing these photos is pretty obvious: People like looking at them. There’s something fascinating about looking at other people who are in unfortunate situations and taking some comfort or amusement from that. Perhaps it’s not the most praiseworthy or noble of ways to get your kicks, but it works.

In fact, it works so well that the printed mugshot papers listed above are making money hand-over-fist at a time when many traditional newspapers are having problems paying the bills (and the journalists). Like it or not, voyeurism is a popular pastime in modern America.

Isaac Cornetti, publisher of a mugshot paper called The Slammer, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2009 that he doesn’t think his paper qualifies as “journalism” per se, but he does think that it can teach valuable lessons. “The appeal is voyeurism and schadenfreude,” he told the CS Monitor, “and it has some redeeming qualities, too, like helping people protect themselves, their families, and their businesses.”

It’s the idea that people are protecting themselves by looking at these mugshots that has critics of mugshot publishing up in arms. Mike Hoyt from the Columbia Journalism Review told the CS Monitor in the article that such websites were slightly better than the stocks as a means of public humiliation.

In 2009, Greg Beato took up the issue on Reason.com, noting that it was a slippery slope to celebrate the humiliation of people who are only accused of crimes. Beato does not content the legitimacy of humiliation or shaming as punishment. After all, some judges put convicts out on the street wearing sandwich boards for all the world to see.

The difference, he notes is that the people who wind out on the street have also “spent some time in front of a judge or jury, who ultimately found you guilty.”

“In general, mug shots have always carried the heavy suggestion of guilt, as if getting caught in the act of being arrested is tantamount to getting caught in the act of committing a crime,” he writes, noting that this is far from the truth.

He goes on:

As soon as a law enforcement agency presents its online rogues’ gallery as a form of deterrence, it transforms the pictures into a form of punishment as well. If appearing in this context is a fate so unpleasant that it can persuade other people to avoid engaging in illicit behavior, then surely it constitutes a penalty. And it’s a penalty that’s being applied without the hassle of due process.

Most sites that do post mugshots also publish a disclaimer noting that the people pictured are innocent until proven guilty. The ethicists worry that’s not enough. Merely seeing their mugshots displayed there on a “crime” page or in a magazine with a name like “The Slammer” is enough to imply guilt, and that, for a newspaper, may be going too far, even for the coveted readers and/or eyeballs.

The Beato article was brought to my attention after the idea about posting mugshots, and the concerns it raises has me seriously reconsidering what I, at first blush, thought was a great idea.

I put it to you, reader. What do you think? Would it be unethical to publish mugshots live from the jail, or would you be among the people dying to see them every day?

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