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Why 3 News Now cut back on mugshot use

Posted at 6:41 PM, Jun 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-08 19:41:59-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Our job, as local journalists, is to provide the community with relevant facts and information.

But we strive to do that in a way that’s fair and minimizes harm. That helps us serve our community in the best possible way.

So, the time came to reconsider a staple of crime reporting: mugshots.

Mugshots are the against-a-wall photos taken when someone is booked in jail. They are the easiest type of photo to obtain of a suspect. They often come attached with the press release from law enforcement.

For many, it’s a snapshot of the worst moment of their life — perhaps fueled by mental health, trauma, or addiction-related problems.

A while ago, we cut back on mugshot use. 3 News Now only uses mugshots when:

  • The subject has been found guilty
  • There’s an active manhunt or someone is considered dangerous
  • Police believe there may be other victims

We may rarely use mugshots in other unforeseeable circumstances.

Overall, our mugshot policy aims to use the images in ways that are less susceptible to implicit biases and more conscientious.

It is not our policy to never show an accused person on our platforms. Instead, we are challenging ourselves to find an alternative to mugshots when a suspect image is needed. Even when our policy allows us to use a mugshot, we will make our best effort to use something else.

Mugshots undoubtedly leave many with the impression that the arrested person is guilty of a crime. The images often have a disproportionately negative impact on low-income and marginalized communities.

Often the news media doesn’t follow up on a crime story after an initial report. Sometimes charges against suspects in those stories are dropped – or they are found not guilty. Yet, an online story with their mugshot – perhaps their worst moment – could live online for decades without that update.

To address that problem, we will soon unveil details on a policy on “sunsetting” or unpublishing some stories that no longer serve the public interest.

3 News Now is not alone in this decision to rethink mugshots.

The long-lasting impacts of mugshots are something newsrooms have only needed to consider relatively recently because of technology.

“Back in the day when…it was today's news and tomorrow's trash, that wasn't such a big deal,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Journalism Professor Matt Waite.

With articles lasting years online, it’s a different story now.

“If a news organization is not careful, it's going to make it very easy for somebody to just type a name in Google and instantly you see that mugshot without any context of what happened after that mugshot was taken,” Waite said. “Most news organizations don't follow every criminal case that they cover all the way to adjudication.”

While working in Florida, Waite was part of a team at the Tampa Bay Times that launched a mugshot gallery.

“We knew that this was going to be successful because people like looking at mugshots,” Waite said. “There's just something compelling about looking at somebody on their worst day.”

They went out of their way to make the tool more fair. After a set amount of time, mugshots would be deleted automatically and the faces of those arrested wouldn’t show up in a Google search.

“That sort of blunted some of the ethical criticism,” he said. “But you’re still holding these mugshots up in a public place and people are looking at it, and there’s not much in the way of journalistic purpose to it.”

Waite, for years, expressed his wish that the newspaper remove the online mugshot gallery. In June 2020, they did.

The staff at 3 News Now will continue to keep an open mind about the impact our work has and how to best serve the community.