June 10, 2020

In 2018, Gannett removed mugshot galleries from all of its sites. You can see a lengthy explanation from the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser here, and another from Florida Today here.

In 2020, yesterday, to be specific, the new Gannett — formed after GateHouse Media bought Gannett and took its name — removed them from 26 former GateHouse sites, though some had already done it. You can now see a brief explanation of why on every mugshot URL like this.

It reads:

We have made an editorial decision to discontinue the publication of mugshot galleries, or mugshot photos that are not associated with a story or other editorial content, effective immediately. Mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value. Instead, we will focus on the best ways to inform our readers by providing relevant information that will keep our communities safe and continuing to cover crime, as well as the public safety system. This policy change does not impact the use of mugshots associated with articles or other editorial content.

The decision is one that local news sites around the country have been making for years, favoring accuracy and context over clicks.

“This is a positive step,” said Doris Truong, Poynter’s director of training and diversity. “We know that arrests disproportionately involve suspects of color — particularly young men. People shown in mugshots don’t always have their case reported through to conclusion, so the news consumer doesn’t see how many cases stemmed from wrongful arrests. Another injustice is how search engines will bring up a person’s arrest and mugshot even if there was no conviction. This puts them at a disadvantage for opportunities in education and employment.”

One of the former GateHouse newsrooms that beat Gannett to the change was the Savannah (Georgia) Morning News. Editor Rana Cash tweeted about the change she announced on her first day as editor.

“I’ve never seen a journalistic value in publishing jail booking mugshots void of any context,” she told Poynter in an email. “The faces reflected in those images are disproportionately people of color and only deepens dangerous stereotypes. As the new editor of the Savannah Morning News and Savannahnow.com, I determined that discontinuing this practice would be among my first orders of business on my first day on Monday. I am pleased that Gannett leadership announced the decision to discontinue publishing mugshot galleries as a company as well. We are committed to serving a loyal, local audience that relies on us for enterprising, meaningful and insightful coverage of our communities. Never has this been more important. That includes crime coverage that will help keep people safe, and in those instances of stories that require mugshots, we will use them.”

This February, Keri Blakinger wrote about the push to take down mugshot galleries for Poynter and the Marshall Project.

Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.

But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.

In January, Blakinger reported, the Houston Chronicle removed them. In March, WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina, removed them. Last year, Cleveland.com did the same.

Mike Canan, WCPO’s senior director of local content, wrote for Trusting News about why it’s not enough to change a policy, you have to tell your community about it, too. WCPO made the decision to stop publishing nearly all mug shots with crime stories.

If I had never written about our policy, there is a great chance many people would not have noticed the change. Those that did might not have understood the reasoning; I would rather someone understand our thought process and disagree with our decision than simply guess why we made a change.

So my advice is: If you have a policy change, tell your audience. Even if it could be controversial.

Despite the move to remove mugshots, several local newspaper sites do still run them, including some Tribune Publishing newsrooms such as the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel. The Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, still runs mugshot galleries, too.

I asked Cash what advice she’d give other newsroom leaders who are ready to make this change. Here’s what she said:

“My advice would be to circle conversations about change around the journalism and audience. These are critical times and it’s important that we have the trust of our readers — that they know we are telling stories that matter, operating with integrity and rejecting harmful approaches that are detrimental to the communities we cover.”

Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

Correction: WCPO’s change wasn’t to remove mugshot galleries, staff isn’t sure they ever had them, but to stop using mugshots with news stories. We apologize for the error, it has been corrected. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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