Mug-shot Mania: Getting mugged after the arrest by Carl Hiaasen

Posted: October 24, 2009 in News and politics

Posted on Sat, Oct. 03, 2009

Posting mug photos online — foul, not fair

By CARL HIAASEN
chiaasen@MiamiHerald.com

Everybody looks guilty in a mug shot. Ask Nick Nolte or Heather Locklear.

Jail photographers aren’t hired for their lighting skills, so not even the biggest stars appear star-like after riding in a squad car. Non-celebrities have no chance of having a flattering picture at the booking desk, though in past times that was the least of one’s worries.

Now, thanks to the Internet, we have what Time magazine calls mug-shot mania. If you get busted in Tampa, Orlando or West Palm Beach, there’s a good chance that somebody sitting in a sports bar or an airport will be laughing at your jailhouse photo the next day.

You might deserve it. You might not.

Hungry to expand online readership, several Florida newspapers (though not the Herald, so far) have been publishing routine police mug shots on their Web pages. The response has been exciting to some, discouraging to others.

The Palm Beach Post reported that its daily mug-shot blotter accounted for a whopping 52 percent of the 45.2 million page-views to its Web sites in May. The Orlando Sentinel says its mug shot portfolios receive 2.5 million Web hits per month.

Any feature that attracts Internet traffic potentially boosts advertising sales, which aren’t exactly booming these days for newspapers. Even the venerated St. Petersburg Times, one of the finest dailies in the country, is now publishing mug shots to draw new readers to their site.

One click on any of the police-blotter icons turns up a predictably motley-looking gallery of alleged drunk drivers, burglars, auto thieves, meth freaks, hookers, johns, check kiters, trespassers, potheads, coke dealers, wife beaters, husband beaters, indecent exposers and resisters of arrest (with or without violence).

The big problem — as critics inside and outside of the news business have noted — is that not everyone who gets booked into jail is guilty. Some are never prosecuted because the charges get dropped. Others are found not guilty at trial.

When that happens to a celebrity, it’s an automatic headline. However, when an ordinary Joe gets acquitted of an ordinary crime, newspapers seldom show any interest.

Meanwhile, your downcast booking photo has been out there in cyberspace for all to see, including your boss, your kids, your spouse or your future ex-fiance.

Journalism professor Robert Steele says that billboarding mug shots has a “stench of unfairness . .. It feeds societal prurience with no journalistic value.” Steele is attached to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which, ironically, owns the St. Pete Times.

Newsday in New York and the Chicago Tribune have also launched popular mug-shot features on their Web sites. The popularity isn’t surprising. People are intrigued by crime both petty and epic, and all media — including newspapers — have traditionally exploited that interest.

But printing the arrest photo of an alleged shoplifter isn’t journalism; it’s an inexpensive gimmick designed to boost ad revenues. Any editor who pretends otherwise doesn’t belong in a newsroom.

Compiling mug-shot pages requires absolutely no reporting or investigating of facts; the papers publish whatever the jail gives them. It’s easy, it’s lazy and it works.

Hordes of readers are eager to see what some total stranger looked like after being busted for driving with a suspended license. Although I’ve never been arrested, I dread to think what my own mug shot would look like, considering the ax-murderer scowl I wear in most family photos.

Not surprisingly, some local radio hosts are having a ball making fun of the online mug-shot galleries. Among those forlorn faces are plenty of scary, freaky, whacked-looking felons.

And be honest: Who among us hasn’t been entertained by the nitwit criminals featured on Cops?

The difference is that the antics on police reality-TV shows have a soundtrack, a plot sequence and a context. With mug shots all you get is a photograph, and no story.

In one 48-hour span last week, about 250 persons were booked into the Palm Beach County Jail. The many who are guilty won’t be reformed by seeing their booking portraits plastered on the Post’s Web pages. Meanwhile, the innocent are basically screwed.

Even if newspapers had enough money and manpower to follow up diligently on all the arrests that they reported, it wouldn’t happen. Like most busy readers, journalists have short attention spans.

In a perfect world, we’d report every acquittal with just as much flash and prominence as we reported the arrest. And, out of fairness, we’d publish a new photo of the exonerated defendant — smiling, well-groomed, respectably attired.

Lots of curious people would probably click on an Acquittals icon, but they’ll never get a chance unless newspapers find a way to make a buck from it.


© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com

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