Several days before Christmas, David Wayne Oliver, 65, allegedly walked into Academy Bank in Colorado Springs and robbed it. He then allegedly turned around, walked outside, tossed the cash into the air, yelled “Merry Christmas!” and then walked to a nearby coffee shop and waited for the police to arrest him.
Police did, and as is customary with crime stories, they released his name and mugshot to local television outlets. Because someone, somewhere out there, was likely to wonder what happened at the bank surrounded by cop cars. And local news outlets have an obligation to tell people what’s going on.
But soon the world knew about Mr. Oliver and his alleged crime, thanks in large part to his mugshot. As the New York Post wrote, he sports a “bushy white beard,” and his purported decision to liberate the money he’d stolen was akin to Santa Claus.
Lost in almost every report was the why — one of the basic things journalists are supposed to uncover. Why did Mr. Oliver rob a bank? Why did he part with his loot? Why did he wait for police? Was his intention really to rob a bank? Is there some reason he needed to go to jail? Was he even aware of what he was doing?
For the New York Post and others, the story was not the why. It was Mr. Oliver’s appearance and unusual approach to philanthropy. The Post and others were happy to commoditize Mr. Oliver’s unusual story for clicks. They were not alone.
In recent years, there’s been conversations both inside and outside of newsrooms about whether the short-term gains of amplifying a human being’s (alleged) worst moment is worth the long-term implications that person has to face.
For people who have been cleared of a crime, that question seems to have a clear answer: It’s not. Newsrooms big and small have started implementing policies that allow editors to remove or amend early online stories about people whose criminal charges were dropped or who were acquitted or cleared through other means. The conventional thinking is, if a person didn’t commit a crime, they shouldn’t have to have a single news story follow them around for the rest of their life, especially when it ranks highly on Google or can be easily spread on social media without context.
But what about people who did commit a crime or whose criminal charges are fresh? How should newsrooms handle those cases? Should their mugshot be aired on TV or posted online for the world to see?
Newsrooms and reporters who advocate for the continued use of mugshots in crime stories that air on TV, online and on social media generally support them by claiming the public’s right to know. They claim the mugshot is part of a larger public safety story and that airing or publishing them holds both the police and the suspect accountable throughout the lengthy criminal justice process. Since any story is technically accurate at the time of publication or broadcast, there isn’t much of a need to go back and correct a situation, especially if a person is convicted.
Mike Canan, the Senior Director of Local Content for Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO (Channel 9), knows that line of reasoning is bullshit.
“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,” Canan wrote in a post on Thursday. “The subject of that photo has likely not had a good last few hours. The person might be intoxicated, angry, upset.”
A mugshot is not proof of a crime, just an illustration of what they looked like when they were charged. And they have the potential to convict individuals in the court of public opinion, which can carry more long-term consequences for people than an actual conviction.
“It is not difficult to see why: the harsh lighting, the dreary background, the gloomy atmosphere, all suggest we are looking at a lawbreaker, when in reality, the person is only a suspect facing allegations,” Shahen Boghoussian wrote in an editorial published by the Napa Valley Register newspaper earlier this month.
Worse, mugshots published by newspapers and television stations online are often swept up by mugshot collection websites. “Thousands of innocent individuals who’ve had their mugshots posted on third-party websites have lost their employment status and have received unfair criticism from their community at large.”
And while journalists can hide behind excuses of accountability and public disclosure, Canan pulls back the curtain on why most newsrooms really use them: They’re good fodder for ratings and traffic, especially when the mugshot is particularly bad or otherwise unusual:
“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…the reality is what the person looks like isn’t very relevant to the story most times.”
Canan writes that most crime stories covered by WCPO involve African-American suspects who come from low-income communities. Using their mugshots “has the potential to reinforce racial stereotypes,” he writes. In other cases, mugshots are aired simply because they’re funny.
“It’s not a strong visual, except maybe as the butt of a joke,” Canan said. “It doesn’t provide much context or additional information. Most people don’t know the person arrested.”
WCPO says it will still use mugshots in a limited number of circumstances, including if a suspect is wanted by police or if a suspect is in custody but police have a reason to believe additional suspects could be outstanding (“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,” Canan reasonably argues). In limited cases, the station may also publish a mugshot online if a suspect’s name is a common one — John Smith, for example — so those unaffiliated with a story aren’t harassed by family, friends and co-workers.
Canan’s policy is a good one, in large part because it avoids the more-complicated question about when a news organization should alter or remove elements of a story, including mugshots, if a person isn’t convicted or beats their charges, and it avoids the issue of the image being swept up by a mugshot collection website. It also finds a balance between a news outlet’s duty to inform the public with an individual’s ability to make mistakes without those errors following them around for life thanks to a Google search or a viral mugshot. It prioritizes journalism over sensationalism at a time when the former seems to be prioritized over the latter, especially in corporate media.
No one outside of Colorado Springs needed to know what Mr. Oliver purportedly did. But we know the details of what he allegedly did because journalists ignored their moral compass in pursuit of ratings and clicks — because, at Christmastime, for reasons still unknown, he supposedly looked and acted like Santa Claus. That’s not news. And that’s not funny. That’s sad.