Editor: Running mugshots of black men was 'right thing to do'

Chattanooga Times Free Press | Maynard Institute

The front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Nov. 17 showed mugshots for 32 people arrested in a federal investigation of the city's crack trade. "Of the latest round-up, all the suspects are men," Beth Burger wrote. "All are black."

"See their faces all in one grouping and you can't ignore that," Free Press Editor Alison Gerber writes in a column about the cover. "You can't just shrug it off."

The newspaper didn't arrest or indict the men. We didn't label them the city's worst criminals. We did, after much discussion, make the decision to publish their photos.

Even if we had not done so, that would not change the fact that 32 black men were arrested and branded the worst of the worst. It still happened, even if we didn't run the photos. But when no one had to see those 32 faces all in one place, it was easier to ignore the fact that the suspects were all men and were all black. It might make the round-up more palatable, but it wouldn't change the facts.

So even though the paper caught some heat for running the mugshots, I believe it was the right thing to do.

The quote about the men being the "worst of the worst" came from Chattanooga's police chief, Gerber notes.

Here's an image of that front page. You can also see it in the video accompanying a Times Free Press story about an NAACP meeting at which the cover was among the subjects discussed.

The Times Free Press maintains a website called "Right2Know" that features mugshots as well as a crime map, salaries of local officials and other information.

Gerber "was apparently unaware of the lessons learned at the Philadelphia Daily News when it published a similar front page in 2002," Richard Prince writes. "That front page pictured 18 police mug shots of fugitives wanted for murder by Philadelphia police. All were either African American, Hispanic or Asian."

The front "damages the quality of life for the average male my age because it portrays us as the enemy of society," Sharif Street, the son of Philadelphia's mayor at the time, told Prince in 2002.

Prince also quotes a 2003 Philadelphia Weekly story that discussed that front page: "Sometimes we are guilty of tunnel vision," Michael Days, then the Daily News' deputy managing editor and now its editor, told Philadelphia Weekly. "The visual impact of all those black men accused of crimes — well, you can imagine the message that sends."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon