• Alex Nelson

News outlets are re-thinking mug shot publishing policies

Amid changing tides in social justice and a national spotlight on issues of race and policing, the Chicago Tribune has become the latest major news outlet to announce changes to guidelines for publishing mug shots.

The move, which came last month, is consistent with a larger push for increased fairness in the use of police booking photos. Newsrooms nationwide are beginning to reconsider the impact of publishing mug shots, especially since most news outlets offer online versions of their print publications, allowing for easy access to news stories that live forever on the internet. The St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Houston Chronicle have also revised their policies regarding the publishing of mug shots.

Images of drunken, battered, or otherwise disoriented arrestees have long been part of crime reporting with many journalists using the often unflattering photos as clickbait, a means of luring readers into clicking on a news story. For those whose images appear in mug shots, the issue is much more serious than clickbait. Mug shots tend to imply guilt and often fuel negative stereotypes associating people of color with breaking the law.

Traditionally, newsrooms do not regularly update crime stories, especially with low level offenses. When charges against the accused are dismissed, reduced, or otherwise modified, many news outlets do not consider such changes newsworthy.

In a note to readers, Chicago Tribute editor Colin McMahon, announced the paper's new guidelines and acknowledged the negative impacts that current crime reporting and the inclusion of mug shots can have on individuals and communities.

"As part of an ongoing examination of the fairness in how we report on people — a bit of introspection that is both shared across the news media industry and long overdue — we are adopting guidelines aimed at the restrained and consistent use of mug shots with news stories," wrote McMahon.

“Readers may associate law enforcement booking photos with criminal activity; their use might imply guilt of individuals who are, by law, considered innocent until proven guilty.

“This is particularly critical as we examine how our journalism might reinforce racial stereotypes and amount to punitive coverage of people who enter the criminal justice system — the majority of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.”

According to the updated policy, the Tribune will now “prioritize public safety, news judgment and compassionate coverage, and acknowledge inconsistencies in the criminal justice system that affect which mug shots are released and published online.”

The Tribune’s new guidelines include:

  • The default is to not use a mug shot

  • Photos must serve a public safety purpose

  • Ensuring the photo has news interest (public figures, elected officials)

  • If a mug shot is used it can only be published with the permission of the editors and as a thumbnail

  • Staff must consider what other photos might be available and the costs of using a mug shot before publishing

  • Exploring ways to programmatically remove mug shots from older stories

Prior to last month's announcement, the Tribune had already been deleting old mugshots and updating some of their older crime stories. “We will remove many of them as we come upon them, but at the moment, we have no technical fix to clear them all,” said McMahon.

The National Association of Black Journalists applauded the move and encouraged other news outlets to follow suit.

“It is important that all publications follow the lead of the Tribune, in recognizing that readers can associate mug shots with unproven criminal activity, although the law says we are considered innocent until proven guilty. Publishing the photos without responsible reporting can further fuel the discrimination that many members of the Black community face, especially Black men,” said Dorothy Tucker, NABJ president.

NABJ Vice President Kathy Chaney also weighed in on the subject, noting that “what is printed is often counted as fact and treated as historical documentation." Chaney further called for greater accountability in newsrooms regarding mug shot use.

"It is time for our industry to take responsibility for how we portray the subjects of our stories, especially when they have not been proven guilty. Having rules in place to direct staff on how to handle such life-altering content should be required in every newsroom,” said Chaney.

A 2016 survey by Univision found that out of 74 major newspapers reviewed, nearly 30 of them published mugshot galleries. That survey has not been updated to reflect any changes in those numbers.

Some states have implemented legislation governing the use of mug shots, but the inclusion of them in crime reporting remains a widespread practice.