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Why we don't run mugshot stories and galleries

Posted at 12:16 PM, Jul 25, 2019
and last updated 2020-01-23 15:37:17-05

A while back we did something unusual. We told our readers about a story we wouldn’t be covering. It was “news” about the Kardashians, and we said nope.

This elicited a positive response for, I think, two reasons. First and foremost, Kardashian Fatigue is real and threatens to destroy us all. What we did is like a doctor saying, “I promise not to give you The Plague.” Gee, thanks. Secondly, we gave you a peek into our newsroom. We said, “This one’s not for us.”

In the spirit of openness – and sharing what you WON’T be seeing on the News 5 site and app – I’d like to tell you about another piece of content we won’t be publishing. This time, it’s not a single story. It’s a type of story: the mugshot story.

A mugshot story can take a couple of forms. Sometimes it’s a gallery of local mugshots, sometimes it’s a gallery of unusual mugshots (think tattoos), and sometimes it’s a story about one criminal, and it’s clear the story has been published solely because the criminal in question has a bizarre mugshot (think several hundred tattoos).

I’m going to let you in on a secret. News sites run mugshot stories because they rake in page views. It’s easy content to make. There is zero risk. Readers click every single time.

We choose not to run them. This isn’t a policy reversal for us. This is us making our policy known, and we’re doing so in hopes that more news organizations follow suit. We salute our Scripps sister station WTXL for already doing so.

Why we don’t do mugshot stories
If you watch News 5, you know we’re not perfect (several of you remind us every day, ha ha -- thanks), but we constantly strive to get a little bit better.

To guide our efforts, we try to live our brand.

This is our brand statement:

News 5, on your side, champions the people of Cleveland. We investigate solutions, hold the powerful accountable, ask the tough questions, provide alerts, and tell the stories of our viewers with memorable images and words.

It’s a lot to live up to, and we don’t always hit the mark. But we aim for it, which gives us a guiding set of principles as we chronicle Northeast Ohio’s many problems, challenges and opportunities.

You may be wondering, “What does any of that have to do with mugshots? They’re criminals. Shame on them.”

Well, let’s respond to that straw man I so conveniently created.

A mugshot does not necessarily mean someone is guilty. A mugshot’s initial appearance in a publication often indicates that an individual has been arrested. This occurs before the trial, when innocence is presumed.

As for shame, journalism’s purpose isn’t to shame. It’s to inform the public. News can be many things – holding the powerful accountable, providing information to keep people safe, highlighting positive developments in a community. Not shame.

There’s also the issue of basic humanity. We’re aware of what it means to put someone’s name or photo in a story that anyone can find online. That’s a responsibility we do not take lightly.

To be clear
Here’s what no mugshots does not mean. It doesn’t mean you will stop seeing mugshots in our stories. They are a part of the public record, and we will run them when appropriate, as we cover crimes. What you will not see on our site is a story published specifically because we know we can rack up pageviews by virtue of publishing an odd mugshot.

Instead, here’s what we will do
We will continue to bring you award-winning investigations, original stories, accurate and timely weather updates and breaking news across all of our platforms, where we will share the day’s news with the earnestness, humanity, empathy and humor that define the culture within our newsroom.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook@joedonatelli1 and Twitter@joedonatelli. Have a question, comment or tip? Email joe.donatelli@wews.com.