I have never been arrested. Because of that, there are no police mug shots of me in existence. That is a very good thing, because if I ever had been arrested, it’s a safe bet the photo taken at the time of my incarceration would be featured on at least one of the many mug shot galleries that litter the internet, and my—most likely— disheveled and disoriented portrait would be a permanent fixture in this ever-growing online photo album of shame.
There are many different ethical implications and complications surrounding posting pictures of people who have been arrested. The Chicago Tribune, one of the most respected American papers to feature such a gallery, hits on the primary issue in the introduction to its frequently updated “Mugs in the news: A collection of Chicago-area arrest photos.”
About the gallery, the Tribune explains, “Arrest and booking photos are provided by law enforcement officials. Arrest does not imply guilt, and criminal charges are merely accusations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty and convicted.”
So if the Chicago Tribune is a serious newspaper with a reputation for journalistic integrity and a history of winning more than two dozen Pulitzer Prizes, why would it post pictures of people who have been arrested but not yet convicted? Isn’t it the job of such a paper to protect the innocent and the less powerful? Shouldn’t a publication like this, one that is working in the best interests of the citizens, be extra vigilant in these kinds of situations, especially in light of the fact that the city of Chicago ‘s police department has a long history of corruption?
These mug shots are posted on a regular basis by the Trib, and often featured prominently on the front page of the paper’s popular and influential web site, because the gallery is a cash cow. They cost absolutely nothing for the newspaper to produce; they are “provided by law enforcement officials” and they are an advertising inventory producing machine.
The last time I checked the Tribune’s mug shot gallery, there were 149 pictures posted. Not only are there ads surrounding each of the mug shots, but also after only seven clicks into the gallery, the space containing the arrest photo itself featured an advertisement that I had to go through before I could get to the next picture.
If easy money is the primary motivating factor for sites like the Tribune to use these kinds of photo galleries, shock value is close on its heels. Features like this are meant to act like online train wrecks—they exploit vulnerable people and they appeal to our basest desires to mock and ridicule individuals when they are at their lowest point.
Mug shots and arrest records are easy pickings for lazy journalists with cruel streaks. They take very little research to produce, they don’t require any fact-checking and they appeal to equally cruel editors who have a bent for sensational slants.
One recent example was published online by the New York Daily News. Titled “World’s most hilarious mug shots,” the story explained: “You don’t need to be a celebrity for your mug shot to be newsworthy. We’ve rounded up the most ridiculous jailhouse pics from normal everyday folks … well, sort of normal …”
The story featured nearly 100 mug shots, many of people who could have been homeless, mentally ill or battered. The pictures were accompanied by wry captions like this: “What would the Addams Family think? Mercella Hernandez bears a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt as she poses for her mug shot on May 31, 2012. Herdandez was arrested on (sic) Arizona for parole violation and refused to show anything but her wild hair for her booking photo.”
When asked by “Entertainment Weekly” about his thoughts on the “American Idol” TV show, Bruce Springsteen called the practice of ridiculing those put on the program with no real talent or chance of winning “theater of cruelty.” And it’s basically that same dynamic with these online mug shot galleries. They serve no productive purpose and they are not meant to protect the public in any way – they are sheer shock value.
And the cruelty that comes with these kinds of features can last forever online. The Internet never forgets a face, and Google searches can ruin a life or a career if someone finds a record of an arrest of a person who later turned out to be completely innocent. And the Chicago Tribune doesn’t have a corresponding photo gallery of “Exonerated Mugs.”
One reason this topic really resonates for me is that I actually wrote an online feature based on arrest mug shots, and it’s something I regret. I guess you could argue that mine was not as mean-spirited as some of the other features of its ilk—it was titled “Nine Surprisingly Sexy Mugshots“—but it was exploitation nonetheless.
Why did I do it? I was paid $75, and it took me almost no time at all to compile it. Simple as that.
In the end, what the experience eventually taught me is that it’s quite easy to destroy someone’s reputation by posting this kind of possibly specious information online. However, once it’s out there, it’s almost impossible to repair and restore it.
Chicago-based writer John D. Thomas is author of the recently published “Great Expectorations: The Cultural History of Saliva from Jesus Christ to Iggy Pop.”