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Of Mug Shots and Media Ethics

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Were I a betting man, I would confidently predict that sometime in the next few days, you’ll be reading a editorial about the vital role the media play informing the public and the crucial role Montana’s constitutional requirement that the public be able to review government records and documents. Why? Because it seems the Independent Record will finally be able to follow the lead of its sister publication, the Billings Gazette, and publish a monthly rogues’ gallery of mug shots on its web site.

On Wednesday, the Independent Record reported that, following a district court ruling, Lewis and Clark County will now be making booking photos available to the public.

There’s little doubt that the court made the right decision. Montana has one of the strongest constitutional protections of the public’s right to inspect the workings of government. As part of the record of arrest, booking photos probably shouldn’t be treated any differently than jail rosters, arrest reports, and charging documents.

My concern is not the ruling, then, but the likely result. For years, the Billings Gazette has been running these photos, not to inform the public in any meaningful way, but as part of a prurient package of slideshows designed to get clicks from people interested in seeing other people’s misfortune. These slideshows aren’t afforded the high-minded label “booking photos,” but highlighted as the mugshots of the month.

Booking photos certainly can serve the public interest, but there is little imaginable justification for a monthly feature highlighting the often embarrassing images, and even less justification when you realize that the Gazette does not even routinely make clear that they are photos of people who have only been arrested, not convicted of crimes. Most of the time, they are unflattering photos of people who are not public figures, and the media should do better than exploit their misery for a few clicks that come from an unfortunate tendency for schadenfreude. Their limited news value is hugely outweighed by the pain and embarrassment they are likely to cause.

Let’s hope that the Independent Record will avoid the temptation of this low-hanging and already-rotten fruit. The Independent Record has the right to publish their photos, but that power in this case doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

Let’s hope the editor at the Independent Record realizes the responsibility that comes along with the power of the press.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we\'d certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

6 Comments

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  • Speaking of which, the Spitoon does them one better. Did you happen to see this?

    http://www.greatfallstribune.com/picture-gallery/news/2015/12/31/11-best-local-mugshots-of-2015/78133044/

    The Spitoon has gone to total sh*t. What a rag. I called up and complained about this particular feature. They have some young little twit named andrea fischer who is their cop reporter, and if she ain’t boinkin’ the cops, she sure ACTS like she is! She’s got a bad case of groupie write large. It’s pathetic and embarrassing.

    The Spitoon has gone completely fascist. Now, all we get is military and cop news. Who pays for that?! They have now actually gone from being a public service to being a disservice. Their new political reporter, phil drake, some guy from back east, is pathetic. Can’t believe that he replaced Dennison and Johnson. Hell, even Jon Adams was coming into his own when they dumped him. There is a long learning curve on Montana politics. Drake thinks the tea party folks here in GF are somehow legit! He sucks up ALL their nonsense and writes about it without criticism. And that’s real sad.

  • Suppose a police officers union doesn’t like a candidate for mayor who argues for, say, no swat team. Suppose rogue officers conspire to arrest the candidate on a trumped-up charge just so he can be booked and photographed. A judge throws out the charges, but the booking photos are already on the internet. The candidate’s opponent, not troubled by ethics to the extent some might wish, uses the booking photos to attack the candidate as out for revenge, and out for revenge in a way that will compromise public safety.

    And it’s not just booking photos that could emerge from such a situation. If the sting is administered expertly, photographer will be stationed to capture the takedown, the handcuffing, etc. Combine those images with a booking photo and a lot of damage could be done.

    As Don noted, there are important First Amendment issues involved this situation. But I would prefer that no booking photos be released until after a person is convicted and his appeals exhausted.

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