Mug Shot Fairness image


By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

In a history spanning centuries of reporting the news, newspapers have never been good at forgetting or looking away.

But now they are beginning to learn how to do that for humanitarian reasons, or to curtail their interest in past practices that could tarnish a person for life.

The Chicago Tribune is the latest to announce new policies aimed at fairness in the way it reports on people. It announced a change in how it handles mug shots of people arrested for crimes but have not gone to trial.


“As part of an ongoing examination of the fairness in how we report on people — a bit of introspection that is both shared across the news media industry and long overdue — we are adopting guidelines aimed at the restrained and consistent use of mug shots with news stories,” Colin McMahon, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and chief content officer of Tribune Publishing. The four publication guidelines are:

*The default is to avoid using a mug shot, except in cases of public safety or high news value.

*Exceptional cases should be rare, and only with the permission of the managing editor or editor-in-chief.

*For enterprise or follow-up coverage.

*Mugshots in older stories pose a challenge, but the newspaper is exploring ways to remove them from publication.

Punitive coverage

This reexamination by media companies, said the newspaper, “is particularly critical in recognizing how their work might reinforce racial stereotypes and amount to punitive coverage of people who enter the criminal justice system — the majority of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.”

The use of mugshots tends to imply guilt of individuals who are charged but not convicted. Some defendants will never be convicted of a crime, the Tribune pointed out.

On similar grounds, the Boston Globe earlier announced its “Fresh Start” initiative.

“Following the nationwide reckoning on racial justice,” the newspaper said, “the Globe is looking inward at the impact its coverage has had on communities of color. As we are updating how we cover the news, we are also working to better understand how some stories can have a lasting negative impact on someone’s ability to move forward with their lives.”

Erasing history

The Globe provides online applications in which individuals may request deleting stories or removing names from stories. Although this amounts to erasing history, the Globe said, “we’re considering this on a case-by-case basis but we think the value of giving someone a fresh start often outweighs the historic value of keeping a story widely accessible long after an incident occurred. People’s lives aren’t static, they’re dynamic.”

The offer to expunge information does not apply to companies.

Two University of Michigan Law professors, J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr, wrote in the New York Times that a new study shows the benefits of giving people a clean slate.

Consequences persist

“The consequences of a run-in with the law can persist for decades after the formal sentence has been served,” they wrote. “People with records face major barriers to employment, housing and education, effectively condemning them to second-class citizenship.”

At least 36 states have laws allowing expungement, they write, but they tend to be narrow in scope. Typically it depends on the number of convictions and the type of crime. After completing their sentences, people often wait years while going through an elaborate process to have their records cleared.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

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