Professionalism vs. the mugshot scams

The Miami Herald‘s John Dorschner adds this thorough story to the growing stack of exposés on the sleazy Internet-mugshot business. David Kravets’ piece in Wired last year still stands as the most in-depth of this genre, the main point of which is to describe a despicable business model and ponder technical and policy solutions. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But there’s another angle worth pondering: what this phenomenon says about the future of criminal justice journalism.

First, the basics if you’re not aware of the mugshot scam. Entrepreneurs scoop up mugshots of criminal suspects, a public record in most places, and publish them in bulk. The purpose is pure entertainment — ogling badasses, or hotties, or losers, I guess to get a thrill from seeing someone at their worst — but the added dimension sounds, as one of Dorschner’s sources tells him, a lot like extortion. If you don’t want your mugshot made so widely accessible in Internet searches, then you can pay the sites to remove it. They charge huge sums, but of course there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed in hiding your shame because of the proliferation of these sites.

If your charges later are dropped, or you’re acquitted, or found to have been wrongly arrested or convicted, or if you simply clean up your life and don’t want every potential mate or employer or friend to discover your DWI or shoplifting or drug arrest, well tough luck. The mugshots live online forever.

Responsible crime reporting requires us to dig deeply enough into the facts that we tell more of the story than just that you were arrested. Ideally, we follow up when you’re cleared and we avoid hyping stories about simple human screwups that don’t hurt anyone else, or that lack widespread importance. Such practices are the opposite of a business that sucks up public records to publish without evident liability and without any real justification other than profit, and then agrees to erase the “facts” when the price is right.

So what’s a professional journalist to do? Besides doing what Dorschner, Kravets, and others have done well — exposing the scam and the immorality behind it — we can take inspiration, in a perverse way, from what these businesses do. To prove our worth, journalists must uphold their standards and exercise them, through aggressive but fair crime reporting, to show the public the value of preserving honest brokers of information. It’s a lot like the response journalists should give to the political culture of lying, spin, and propaganda. If we do our jobs right, and persist, then maybe the public will be able to discern between the crap and the good stuff.

A fella can dream, can’t he?

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