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WCPO is cutting back on the use of mug shots with crime stories

Cincinnati police
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-24 10:01:44-05

For most people who have been arrested, the police mug shot when they are booked into jail is the worst picture ever taken of them.

The subject of that photo has likely not had a good last few hours. The person might be intoxicated, angry, upset.

In other news organizations, the mug shot itself sometimes seems to be the purpose of the story.

The person’s crimes are minor, but he or she had an awkward expression or a face covered with tattoos. Some journalist then decides that mug shot will be really amusing online and will allow the story to get a lot of pageviews on the website.

Spoiler alert: This strategy will probably work. But that’s not the type of newsroom I want to lead -- or even work in. That doesn’t seem fair or responsible to me.

Somewhere in that process, the journalist forgets that this is a real person, not simply the butt of a joke.

In addition, many crimes we cover happen in low-income communities. These crimes, often borne out of poverty, disproportionately involve African Americans. Putting mug shots of those arrested online and on TV has the potential to reinforce racial stereotypes.

The reality is what the person looks like isn’t very relevant to the story most times.

Yet it’s a standard practice in nearly every newsroom that when someone is arrested, the journalists use the mug shot if it is available.

But what does that photo really add to the story?

Not much.

It’s not a strong visual -- except maybe as the butt of a joke. It doesn’t provide much context or additional information. Most people don’t know the person arrested.

That’s why we have decided to generally stop using mug shots on TV and online except in a few circumstances.

Our policy is now to only use mug shots in the following situations:

  1. The person police suspect of the crime is still on the loose. We have the person’s past mug shot and it is important that our audience know what the suspect looks like because he or she is at large and may be a danger to the public.
  2. Police have arrested a suspect, but officials believe there could be additional victims. It is important to show the public what this person looks like so others could determine if they were a victim of the same person.

There might be additional situations where we use a mug shot. For example, we used a mug shot of a person with a common name because a man with the same name called us and said his friends and family kept asking him if he was the person arrested. The mug shot helped differentiate between people with that common name.

WCPO has had a long-standing policy not to use mug shots of crime victims. Now, we are adding this additional policy involving crime suspects.

We think it is ethical and responsible without harming our commitment to accurate journalism.

As always, please feel free to send me your feedback or questions at mike.canan@wcpo.com.

Mike Canan is the Senior Director of Local Media Content at WCPO. Contact him at mike.canan@wcpo.com. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @Mike_Canan.