Wick Communications

The accused and the guilty

In Crime on October 20, 2016 at 3:06 pm
Clyde Champion Barrow

Clyde Champion Barrow

I’m not a big fan of police mugshots. I say that knowing full well that readers can’t get enough of them. There are entire websites filled with nothing but people caught at their absolute lowest moments — bloodshot eyes, hair in need of a comb, frowns that look permanent.

In fact, there are websites that scrape all those mugs, post them and then send the accused a friendly email, noting the accused can have that sad picture removed … for a price. It’s extortion and, amazingly, perfectly legal.

I want to make a plea on behalf of the accused. Please remember that just because the authorities send the local newspaper a mugshot does not mean the guy in the picture is guilty. If you are going to use it and run a man or woman’s name in 40-point type along with the accusation, I think you have an obligation to follow the case through adjudication.

And ask yourself this: What would you tell someone accused of a heinous crime in your newspaper after he is found not guilty? What will you say, after you have posted his name and photo online, where it will remain in some form for the rest of his life?

I take particular caution with photos of those accused of crimes that come with particular stigma. Take, for instance, child molestation. You can argue that parents have a right to know if there is a predator in their midst, and I guess that is so. But, as a parent, am I really going to commit that mug to memory so that when I see the guy three years from now I know to scurry my children in the other direction? (As an aside the Innocence Project of Texas reported a few years ago that it received 100 letters a week from people who said they were wrongly accused of sex crimes.) …

Time was, someone was accused of a crime and her name and photo appeared in the local paper in print and then it was largely forgotten. Now, that accusation can live for decades any time someone searches that name. I think that changes the calculus on the kinds of things we publish.

If nothing else, please be clear that the accusations are just that until a suspect is found guilty. I regularly see headlines — in our papers and elsewhere — reading something like, “Police arrest burglar in city” or “Teacher molests student.”

Also consider the matter of play. Are you putting that arrest above the fold because it’s the most important news of the day or because it was hand-fed to you by local authorities who have a vested interest in seeming to be tough on crime? When I do the math at my own paper, a private citizen’s arrest rarely rises above the fold.

These aren’t matters of right and wrong. You aren’t wrong to put that molestation arrest in the lead position. I just ask you whether that is more important to more readers than the performance of local schools, proper use of tax dollars or plans for a new park.

Thanks for your consideration.

Clay

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  1. Good thoughts on this.
    Often criminal cases remain around for a long time and it becomes a habit to just keep running the mug as an art element, which multiplies the unfair aspect of the worst photo of anyone’s life. I have asked defendants’ attorneys and/or families, or defendants, through a trial process: “hey, if you have a photo you want to share we might use it,” or ask to get a another photo taken; and, of course, take our own candid shots outside court or wherever.
    One other consideration: we tend often to run a perp/defendant’s mug, plus,on the same page, sometimes adjacent, the photo of the victim.
    Parents of such victims, often murdered in terrible way, have told me how much that hurts: “It looks like an engagement photo!” – when we never gave a thought to the emotional impact of regularly running photos of the killer or rapist next to his victim, often time after time.

  2. Clyde Barrow’s middle name was Champion?

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