On Sunday, we made a long overdue change in how police booking photos, or “mug shots,” are handled by this newspaper and its associated website.
After an honest examination of our past practices, we have concluded it is not a question of what we can publish. Mug shots of those arrested are legally part of the public record, and so we are free to publish them. Rather, the real question is, what should we publish?
In answer to the latter question, we are making changes to our guidelines out of a desire to be fair in the way we report on people. It is painfully plain that too often over the years, we ran mug shots of people who were found not guilty, pleaded to lesser charges than those they were charged with by the police or did not go to trial at all.
The very fact we published an arrest photo in our newspaper is often enough to insinuate that someone is guilty and involved in criminal activity, even when it is not true.
Recently, some readers have rightly criticized our use of mug shots because publishing these pictures often reinforces racial stereotypes and undermines the presumption of innocence. At the least, this reaction can amount to a tacit punishment, implying guilt of those charged but not convicted. But at its worst, it can reaffirm existing prejudices or create new, unwarranted and harmful biases.
Our new guidelines are exceedingly simple: We will no longer routinely publish mug shots. Instead, we will reserve their use for two purposes only: 1.) if a mug shot serves the public’s safety, or 2.) if the person arrested is a public figure or if the crime itself has extraordinary news value.
In the case of the first exception, we might choose to publish a mug shot if doing so helped other potential victims of a crime come forward or if the person wanted by the police is still on the loose and publishing a mug shot from an earlier arrest could aid in their apprehension.
As for the second case, if a public figure or an elected official is arrested, we would consider publishing a mug shot. Or if a local crime were so egregious that it attracted regional or national attention, we would, again, consider accompanying a story with a picture.
Our decisions will always be careful and deliberate, and we will always ask ourselves if there are other photos available that can take the place of a mug shot. And if we do opt to run a mug shot, it will always be inset in a column to ensure that the picture does not dominate the reporting.
In the final analysis, we are making this change because we believe it is ethical, fair and responsible, and that it will not harm our commitment to accurate journalism.