Follow-up: No, Mug Shots and Arrest Reports Don’t Serve the Public Interest

My latest post, about the despair pornography that fills much of the coverage in the local paper of record, seemed to upset some members of the Montana press, who took to Twitter to suggest that I need a vacation, actually spread incorrect information about one of their own stories, and mock my frustration about the tenor of the coverage in our communities. And one of them called me “Donny,” which is just over the line.

I don’t imagine that there’s much chance for engagement on the topic as I have certainly generated a level of defensiveness here that won’t lead to conversation, but I want to focus on one tweet from Thomas Plank, the local crime and local government reporter at the Independent Record, who wrote:

Respectfully, Mr. Plank, it doesn’t have to be done.

I absolutely empathize with your desire not to run these stories based on arrest records and crime reports, but I would question the assertion that most (even many)

A very typical list of Trending Stories on the IR

serve a useful function in our community. They are certainly engaging posts, as a look at the Trending Posts on the Independent Record at 3:00 p.m. today reveals that all five top stories are based on arrest report charges, one for  felony DUI, one for an inmate breaking a window, one for a strangulation of a partner or family member, one for a sixty-year-old man possessing meth, and one for a woman threatening a man with a knife.

I understand, at some level, the impulse to believe that these are newsworthy stories. The commission of a crime is something that affects our community and those who commit them certainly don’t have an expectation of privacy. But that’s not what has happened in these pieces. While all the individuals have been charged with crimes, none have been convicted or admitted their actions—and we simply can’t know how these cases will turn out. Many will likely plead to lesser offenses and some charges will be dropped. Some might even be found innocent in court.

As Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute notes:

This approach can be problematic, she said, because many times a mug shot, or a news story surrounding an arrest isn’t followed up with what happens to the defendant and the case.

“I talk to newspaper editors all the time, and I’m telling them that if you publish information about someone’s arrest, and you have absolutely no intention of telling the audience what the outcome of that case was, then you’re not actually serving the public,” she said.

And it’s far more likely than not that we’ll never learn the resolution of these cases. Given the staffing limitations at the paper, there simply isn’t time to fully cover these stories and follow up to make sure that the person charged and paraded before a prurient audience was found guilty of the crime that will follow them online forever.

And that seems profoundly irresponsible. Many of the people charged with these crimes are economically disadvantaged and a digital scarlet letter marking their shame for an alleged crime will only make their lives more difficult and their chances to be successful even more constrained. And most certainly won’t have the ability to have these stories corrected or amended, no matter what the outcome of their journey through the judicial system was.

There are, of course, obvious exceptions when publishing stories based on charging documents is warranted, the tragically mundane allegations that race to the top of the most-viewed stories on our local paper just don’t often meet that standard.

And there’s absolutely no justification for each of the five stories trending on the IR to contain a link to April’s mug shot gallery. That’s crass commercialism of human misery that simply cannot be justified.

This kind of reporting just doesn’t have to be done. Let’s send our young reporters out to do the kind of work they became journalists to do, to tell stories about our communities that are nuanced and tell the entire story. Let’s send them out to use journalism as a tool to put fear in the hearts of the powerful, not increase the misery of the powerless.

That is what needs to be done.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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.

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