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Some Newsrooms Are Rethinking Their Approach To Publishing Mug Shots


Let's say you're arrested, taken into custody, lined up and photographed, and your picture ends up online in a gallery of mug shots published by your local paper. That photo then follows you in Google searches, through job interviews - all in the public domain, preserved in Internet amber. Now some newsrooms are rethinking whether to publish these rock-bottom photos. Keri Blakinger has reported on this for The Marshall Project. And she joins us now from KUHF in Houston. Hello.

KERI BLAKINGER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Online mug shot galleries are not uncommon. And papers might say this is in the name of public safety. Others might say it's about Internet traffic. Has that thinking shifted?

BLAKINGER: I think that has shifted a little bit. And I would challenge the idea that that has any sort of public safety effect if we're talking about mug shot galleries of, say, you know, drunk-driving arrests or low-level drug arrests. I don't think anyone really sits there and says, oh, maybe I'll stop smoking pot today because they might use me in a mug shot gallery. But, you know, I think part of the reason that this is changing is that we're seeing a changing discussion around criminal justice generally. But also, newspapers are starting to get a lot of these requests from people who want their images taken off the Internet. And that sort of ends up sparking newsroom discussions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not a secret, also, that most of these galleries are filled with black and brown faces, which feeds into negative racial stereotypes.

BLAKINGER: Yeah. And I think that's hugely problematic. And that's also problematic in terms of a lot of the sort of low-level crime coverage, a lot of the police blotter type stuff. It all has a disparate racial impact. And that can mean that it's harder to get a job, even if you're not convicted because that's the other thing - these are simply the arrests. You don't actually know what happens with that case and if that person was convicted of that crime or if they were ever convicted of any crime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write about having gone through this yourself - being arrested and having your mug shot published. Can you talk us through what happened?

BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. I had used heroin for about 10 years. You know, I struggled with depression and addiction. And I got arrested, ended up doing just under two years in prison and obviously ended up with a mug shot as a result of that. It was a pretty bad mug shot. You know, my face is all picked up. You know, my hair's disheveled. I look high. And it's the sort of mug shot that you would just sort of gawk at, which I think is oftentimes one of the attractions for these mug shot galleries in general.

Now, my image did not appear in any mug shot galleries that I'm aware of. But when the mug shot is that sort of stigmatizing, I think it actually makes it more likely that people want to attach it to the story. And I think it can also sort of frame the way in which people are responding to it because when I got out of prison, I had all these nasty messages from strangers. And some of them were, like, describing how I deserved to be killed or using words that I can't use on radio. You know, it made me think that if this is how strangers are responding, I mean, is this how potential employers are going to respond? Is this what they're thinking when they, you know, look me up? You know, and then there's the comments on all the stories, obviously, as well. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This was after a story was done on your arrest.

BLAKINGER: There was a number of stories done because, you know, it was a Cornell student arrested with a decent amount of heroin. I think Huffington Post wrote about it, New York Daily News. It was like a crime brief that was...


BLAKINGER: ...Sort of wacky enough that it ended up picking up some national attention.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds horrific. I'm so sorry. How did that experience inform your own reporting on this?

BLAKINGER: In terms of mug shots in particular, I mean, I didn't really sort of initially think that there was another way that things could be done. Like I would, you know - I worked at a tabloid for a year. And obviously, they use a lot of mug shots. And sometimes I would look at these and think, like, jeez, I know what that person's going through right now. Like, I know what that first day of jail's like. I felt - I just...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the worst day of their life, essentially...

BLAKINGER: Yeah. Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That they've been photographed.

BLAKINGER: Exactly. I would think that. But it really didn't occur to me that there was a possibility to do it a different way until sometime after I came to the Chronicle. And I started - because I spent three years at the Houston Chronicle. And there started being more public conversations about covering criminal justice differently. I personally, I understand the harms - not just to me, because, I mean, I've been lucky. I mean, I've benefited from, you know - from white privilege, from class privilege. Like I've been able to bounce back. And that's not something that everyone can do. But, you know, I understand the harms to me and my friends and to the people I did time with. So when there started being conversations about mug shots in some newsrooms, I was like, this is something I want to get behind. Like, this needs happen here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this should just be sort of a a newsroom blanket ban on these kinds of pictures, just like not to use them under any circumstances?

BLAKINGER: Well, I think there's certain lines that it's very clear to me. There's no news value. And I think that newsrooms need to weigh like, does this have news value? And what harm might we cause by putting this out there? But there's this whole spectrum of things like the Chronicle has stopped using mug shot galleries. But they'll still use mug shots in - like individual mug shots on certain stories. But there's all these other discussions that need to be had as well, aside from just the issue of mug shots.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Keri Blakinger, reporter for The Marshall Project. Thank you very much.

BLAKINGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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