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.