10/28/13

Vodka Samm and the Troubling Practice of Mugshot Journalism

I'm late to the most recent chapter of the Vodka Samm story, but I'm not alone so I'm going to finally write some thoughts about one of my biggest pet peeves in journalism: the irresponsible use of mugshots. In this story, it's just a small part of the mean-spirited harassment of an ordinary college student. In other situations, it creates the impression of guilt before convictions that often never come, and for that reason can also be a convenient intimidation tactic for police.

Quick refresher first: @Vodka_samm was the Twitter handle of Samantha Goudie, a senior at the University of Iowa who was arrested for public intoxication after trying to run onto the Hawkeyes' football field an hour before an August kickoff. Because she tweeted about blowing a .341 and used a silly cultural cliche—"#yolo"—immature journalists thought it was hilarious and it suddenly became an international news story.

Samer Kalaf, who gets paid to snark about sports for the heavily trafficked Deadspin, labeled Goudie an "Idiot on the Field," misreporting the story by saying she tried to get on the field during the game. He never issued a correction, but he did update the post to include a mugshot of a teary-eyed Goudie standing next to an annoyed cop.

Why this is still news: last Thursday, the Daily Iowan scored the first interview with Goudie. In the interview, she called a news report about her "devastating" and discussed her struggle with depression—a departure from her tweets after the arrest that downplayed the incident.

Either way, turning Vodka Samm into a story to begin with was a clear abdication of responsible journalism. Just consider these points from the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics (listed under "Minimize Harm"): "Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance," "Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy," and, most importantly, "Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity."

There's the argument that there's no expectation of privacy on the internet, as if Goudie should have expected that a few tweets she probably doesn't even remember writing would lead to internet notoriety. The former is true, of course, but doesn't mean drawing undue attention to the tweets was responsible journalism, and it certainly doesn't justify the routine practice of digging through unguarded social media accounts to post photos and videos if, as is usually the case with mugshots, they serve no other purpose than to embarass and mock people in popular public forums.

And despite all the hand-wringing and moralizing about the dangers of boozing up a .341 BAC, and U of I president Sally Mason's claim that wasted students at her top-rated party school are "not who we are," drunken hijinks aren't uncommon anywhere outside of a Bible college. Everyone knows that overdoing it is dangerous and has killed people. There is no need for the cautionary tale to be journalists' slap-dash interviews with doctors about the specific breathalyzer test of someone who sobered up just fine.

Nor do we need journalists using mugshots in police blotter reports or to mock random people. Des Moines alt-weekly Cityview (which also published Goudie's mugshot in an idiotic cover story titled "Grills gone wild!") and websites like The Smoking Gun have regular features where readers get to match mugshots to the crimes the accused were charged with. Was this sucker drunk in public or did he beat his wife, you'll wonder, while probably overlooking the "innocent until proven guilty" disclaimers.

Another troubling practice, something the Des Moines Register does, is the indiscriminate publication of recent mugshots. An image linking to the mugshots on the Register's homepage is blurred out and its FAQ page reads like the justification of something the paper knows isn't legit, with disclaimers including, "we do recognize that charges do not necessarily lead to convictions, and take steps to minimize the long-term impact of the data [by deleting the mugshots after two months]." Update: I overlooked this, but the Register's weekly, Juice, also mocked Goudie on its cover last week.

Even worse is when journalists effectively function as stenographers for the police, posting stories consisting of nothing but a mugshot and excerpts from a police report. This is the story I most regret not writing while covering Bay Area protests, because police repeatedly hung trumped-up charges over activists' heads, including felonies, that were often "discharged pending further investigation" for months. These were serious charges, like assault and hate crimes, and although they were usually dropped, the news reports, with names and mugshots, linger forever on the internet thanks to journalists who didn't stop to think that the cops may have sold them a bill of goods.

Then you have stuff that's not journalism at all, the websites that harvest millions of mugshots from public record databases, publish them, and basically extort people by charging them hundreds of dollars to remove the images. In 2009, Reason published an excellent story about how these sites create the presumption of guilt before conviction.

Former Reason editor Mike Riggs pointed to those websites to argue that mugshots shouldn't be in the public record at all. His piece is worth reading, but I'm not sure it would be a good idea to go that far. For instance, I'm okay with using a mugshot of a guy who shoots up a movie theater (although there's a legitimate debate to be had about whether that inspires copycat killers). It reminds me too much of the backlash of terrible legislation against journalists who published maps with addresses of gun owners and called them stories instead of taking the time to do anything useful with the data.

Anyway, mugshot journalism is a depressingly common practice, and I don't think that most reporters stop to think about its ramifications. If they have, they don't care because they've profited handsomely off it. Quit it!

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