A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

Pictorial Punishments: When the Coverage Doesn't Fit the Crime

On a recent road trip in the Northwest touring wineries and the Gray Goose, we naturally sampled the local morning papers along our way. Twice we were more taken aback with what we saw folded into the local coverage than we were by the idea of oyster omelets served at a small-town café.

Police blotters showing warrants, arrests, and fire and ambulance runs are not unusual fare for small town papers. But, what led to an animated discussion one morning as the eggs got cold was one paper's decision to include a set of mug shots of a handful of the folks who had outstanding warrants.

We decided that the pictures weren't there because they were the most photogenic of the bunch. Direct flash police mug shots don't flatter anyone.

The newspaper featured, on an inside page, a WANTED box with mug shots and brief vital statistics for four individuals. The words and pictures were set in front of gray lines to mimic a jail cell. At the top was written, "The ... County Sheriff's Office has warrants for these people. To report information about them or crimes, call [an 800 number]." Below this array were more than a dozen additional names with their offenses, but without images.

The crimes of the four that were pictured were no worse than the other offenses that included failure to appear, trespass, fourth-degree assault, and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. We figured it must be the luck of the draw whether you only got your name in bold type or whether you also got your picture, name and identification published. "Could this be considered fair or justified news coverage?" we asked. "Have you ever had a worse omelet in your life?" was another.

We also came across a story out of London that gave the news that the two 18-year-old men who abducted a toddler from a shopping mall, and then tortured and beat the child to death when they were both 10-year-old boys in 1993 were being released. The judge presiding over that case forbid news media from forever revealing details about the assailants or publishing their pictures. We talked about how U.S. news organizations would respond to a judge who said you couldn't publish pictures of convicted murderers.

And then we wondered when is it morally permitted and when not to publish pictures of persons charged or convicted of crimes? The fact that it is legal to make such persons known in the United States under the First Amendment doesn't automatically make it the right thing to do. When news organizations are causing harm, even if the harm caused is to people who the journalists think are the scum of the earth, there better be a better rationale than, "It's legal, so why not?" We wondered whether some media managers were confusing their societal role with that of local law enforcement. And, we realized that law enforcement agencies sometimes also think that journalists should do the job of the police.

Using visuals to punish offenders has been a part of our culture at least since Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850 emblazoned a red "A" on Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. Attempts to curb prostitution in some areas of a town include the showing of videotapes of sex workers and their johns on cable television stations. Although mug shots of those with outstanding warrants and perp walk photos don't often raise public ire, the ethical question remains: Are the pictures in the public interest or are they simply pictorial punishments?

This question is increasingly important as news organizations struggle to figure out their responsibility under Megan's Law. The federal law was passed after Megan Kanka, 7, was sexually assaulted and murdered by a convicted sex offender. If the public had been informed of a sex offender living in the neighborhood, then the girl's death might not have happened, it was argued. When the mug shot and information of a recently released sex offender arrives on an editor's or producer's desk, should the picture and information appear in a local paper and on a local news broadcast?

The reason for running such pictures matters. News organizations have the primary responsibility of putting column inches or limited minutes toward giving people in the community information that can help them manage their lives. Knowing of criminals in your midst, it can be argued, might help you live a better life-at least you might be more cautious.

But it is not the job of journalists to assist in acts to deter crime or to punish people who commit crime. That is the job of law enforcement and the judicial system. Running photos or perp walks of those charged or even convicted of misdemeanors or other non-major crimes is often not justifiable on newsworthy grounds.

When media managers allow their news organizations to cooperate closely with government on a regular basis, it is a good sign that these managers have lost sight of their primary mission. First, they have given away editorial space or time that would be better spent helping readers and viewers understand the factors that lead to crime in their community. Even worse, the news organizations are rightly seen as being in bed with the police, which further alienate the voiceless in their community. The very unusual times that it is justified to cooperate with law enforcement, it should be clear to readers and viewers why that unusual act was necessary. Probably the most famous case of reporter-police cooperation was the Mirage Bar case in which cameras caught Chicago city officials extorting bar owners. But there are other stories-testing airport security, investigating under-aged drinking, and so on.

Crime pictures in the public interest are those that involve crimes worthy of readers' or viewers' attention or alleged perpetrators who are a danger to the community at large. Pictures of those who have had warrants issued against them for failure to appear for a minor traffic accident, for example, may embarrass the person pictured, but is not likely to have impact on readers or viewers outside of that person's family or circle of friends. Pictures of those charged with drug possession or DUI do not help the audience better understand these problems. Pictures of those charged with domestic violence or violating a restraining order might further traumatize the victim.

Readers or viewers may get a kick out of such photos, but prurient interest is not public interest. Police records and open court hearings and, increasingly, websites, provide opportunities for these members of the audience to seek such information. It is not necessarily the job of news organizations to provide it.

Megan's Law creates a set of information that is clearly on the edge of what might be in the public interest and requires journalistic judgment on a case by case basis. The fact that someone served time for a sex crime does not automatically imply that he is a danger to the community. However, the rate of recidivism for certain types of sex crimes indicates that the community should be informed that some ex-offenders are back in the neighborhood. It is up to individual media managers to use local experts-psychologists, not cops-to help editors and producers determine when a sex offender's release is news and when it is not.

There's another issue of concern. Many of those pictured in police mug shot sections do not read the daily newspaper and are not a part of an advertiser's marketing demographic. Consequently, they are easy to discount. But, while this objectification might be the perspective of the newsroom bean counters, it shouldn't be the view of the journalists.

Journalists have a special responsibility to seek out stories of the voiceless in the community. The homeless, the poor, the addicted and the powerless are not likely to call the newsroom with story ideas. But, their stories need to be told. They are part of the coverage area, even if they are not an advertiser's targets. Journalistic examination of community services isn't complete unless those who are served or underserved are part of the story. Unfortunately, pictorial punishments are often meted out against those in society least likely to complain and least likely to have their side of the story told. Further alienation does not help individuals or the community in which they live.

When a public figure or public official is charged with a crime, the story moves to a higher level of public interest. The use of pictures moves up a notch on a justification scale. But, even in those instances, the power of pictures should be used judiciously.

In many Western democracies, it is not legal to publish the names or pictures of persons who have been charged with, but not convicted of, crimes. As illustrated by the British child killer case, the judiciary has far more power in other countries to balance the need for privacy against the need for publicity. But, the fact that news organizations in the U.S. can pretty much publish what they like doesn't imply that everything should be published.

We have a historical concern in this country about undue governmental secrecy and a cultural ideal of an active citizenry. If the names of those charged with crimes are published, the theory goes, then others are alerted so that they may come forward with evidence for or against that person's defense. On this principle, news organizations may legitimately provide this kind of public information as part of their job of telling citizens information that may be important for them to know. Running only the names from a police blotter meets this role-related responsibility with a minimum of space and time.

However, whether a person should have his or her mug shot appear in the paper as well should also be determined by the probable impact that the story will have on a larger audience. Unless the crime or person charged or convicted is important enough to merit serious reporting from the first day through the final disposition, no picture is warranted.

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