Some are red-eyed from crying, others visibly drunk. Some sport black eyes or jarring face tattoos. Occasionally, one offers an addled grin.
Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.
But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.
Last month, the Houston Chronicle became the latest major paper to take that plunge. At an all-hands staff meeting, the paper’s editors announced their decision to stop posting slideshows of people who have been arrested but not convicted—and who are still presumed innocent under law.
“Mugshot slideshows whose primary purpose is to generate page views will no longer appear on our websites,” Mark Lorando, a managing editor at the Chronicle, later explained in an email to The Marshall Project. “We’re better than that.”
“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.”
Some news organizations—including The Marshall Project—avoid mugshots altogether. The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site in Connecticut, doesn’t typically use images or even names of people who’ve been arrested. In 2018, the Biloxi Sun Herald took down its daily mugshot galleries and stopped reporting on many low-level arrests, worried that the overabundance of crime coverage created a false impression of southern Mississippi.
A 2016 survey of 74 papers by Univision’s Fusion channel found that 40 percent published mugshot galleries. There’s no comprehensive tracking of such media practices so it’s not clear how much that figure has changed.
Publishing mugshots can disproportionately impact people of color by feeding into negative stereotypes and undermining the presumption of innocence, said Johnny Perez, a formerly incarcerated New Yorker who is currently director of U.S. prison programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
“It reaffirms existing biases and creates biases where none exist,” he said. “People of color are already more likely to be found guilty than their white counterparts.”
“It creates this situation where you’re criminalizing folks before they’re convicted of any crime,” he said, noting that the existence of mugshots on the internet, where they’re easily searchable, can make it hard for people to get jobs.
Last year, Cleveland.com/Advance Ohio announced sweeping changes to its crime coverage. Editor Chris Quinn says the decision was prompted by a community leader who asked him if he’d ever considered the racial dimension of mugshots.
It took a few years, but ultimately Quinn decided to cut back the use of mugshots, stop naming people accused of minor crimes and create a committee to evaluate requests from people looking to have their low-level brushes with notoriety removed from the internet.
“We finally decided we’re causing suffering here,” he told me.
Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, likened mugshots to “a digital scarlet letter.”
A decade ago, when Waite was a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida, he helped create software to scrape booking information and images from local government websites and display them in a traffic-boosting web gallery. As soon as he and his colleagues started sending the weirdest photos to each other, he said, they realized the project was going to be problematic.
“Legally, it’s public record—but legal is not always right,” he said. “Fortunately, I worked at an organization that was willing to listen.”
The paper built the site to eliminate the photos after 60 days, and blocked Google from indexing the page so it wouldn’t be the first thing to pop up in search results. Still, Waite says he harbors complicated feelings about the final product.
I’ve been on both sides of this: in 2010, I was arrested with heroin and still sitting in jail when my own “faces-of-meth”-style mugshot began spreading across the internet, from the Huffington Post to Gawker to the Ithaca Journal.
I didn’t like it; I was struggling with drug addiction and the entire internet seemed to be making fun of my appearance. But I didn’t fault the news organizations. I knew I’d fucked up, and mugshots seemed like an unchangeable part of the media landscape.
After prison, I went into journalism, starting at a small local paper and later spending a year at a national tabloid, where I put together hundreds of crime stories and slide shows. To me, it seemed like the cost of being a reporter; if I wanted to write about criminal justice, I would also have to cover crime and everything that entailed.
But over time, more organizations started shifting away from mugshots and I started pestering management at the Houston Chronicle, where I worked at the time, to do the same.
Last year, a woman asked me about removing a friend’s old mugshot from a story. He’d been arrested for burglary in 2008 but only convicted of misdemeanor trespassing. She said he’d cleaned up his life, and a quick records search showed he’d at least avoided further arrest.
But when I Googled him, a mugshot from the paper’s decade-old story—with photo—was the first thing to come up.
Her friend wasn’t trying to get his name removed from the story; she only wanted the mugshot deleted. Years ago, he’d begun using another name to avoid any connection to the one piece of newspaper coverage about him. Now, it was just his face connecting him to his youthful mistake.
It’s not clear that the Chronicle’s new policy would help someone like him. The paper will still use booking photos when they have news value. Lorando said the paper does not generally remove or edit stories that were accurate when they were published.
“If we get documentation of unreported later developments that alter the context of the original story, we’ll consider updating the post,” he said. “The goal, as always, is accuracy and fairness.”