With some photos and a simple sentence -- "Meet 163 people who were arrested in the last 24 hours in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties" -- the St. Petersburg Times has sparked intense debate about the merits of showcasing mug shots on a news site.

Tampa Bay Mug Shots is based entirely on information already available from local sheriffs' departments. But the sleek site is built around the mug shots, not the crimes. Photos of the recently booked scroll across the top of the screen, and below, bar charts categorize them according to gender, height, weight, eye color and the county where they were arrested. Users can search for arrestees by last name or ZIP code, and they can go directly to the official sheriff's department page that lists personal information for everyone arrested.

Among the questions raised by journalists:

  • Is this journalism? Voyeurism? Entertainment? Infotainment?
  • Is it fair to highlight people who have been arrested but not been convicted of a crime? What if the charges are dropped or they're acquitted?
  • What are the legal implications of highlighting these people?
  • How does this compare to other databases, such as restaurant inspections or public employee salaries, that news sites post online?
  • In an age when things seem to live forever online, what impact could this have on people's digital identities?

Matt Waite, a member of the three-person team who developed the site, will answer questions about the site in a live chat at 1 p.m. Thursday. He'll speak with Kelly McBride, our ethics faculty, and will take questions from the public. (Waite also will discuss Tampa Bay Mugshots during the next Journalism Now podcast, which will be posted online this weekend.)

Here's some background for the chat:

The St. Petersburg Times (which is owned by The Poynter Institute) is not the first paper to put mug shots on its site. The Orlando Sentinel does it. The Palm Beach Post puts links and a couple of thumbnail images at the top of its home page; Newsday also links to booking photos on its home page (look under the Photos & Multimedia heading).

Journalism or not, the public certainly seems to have an appetite for mug shots, both in print, as CNN and The Christian Science Monitor have reported, and online. Both the Times and Creative Loafing have observed the popularity of mug shot publications around Tampa Bay.

And though the Times' presentation is new, controversy over unorthodox crime publications isn't. For years, the St. Louis Evening Whirl chronicled the crime, scandal and gossip of the local African-American community. The paper was unusual, to say the least: lead stories written in verse, crimes described in the form of questions, angry editorials that decried gangland violence. The publication was widely criticized, yet at the end of the publisher's life, he was inducted into the local black journalists' association hall of fame.