CNN tackles debate over St. Pete Times Mug Shots, stumbles on a few facts
After watching a CNN report on the various ways newspapers are making money featuring arrest mug shots -- centered on the St. Petersburg Times' own recent creation Tampa Bay Mug Shots -- I felt like I was watching an opportunity inch slowly by, missed in slow motion.
As I've acknowledged on this blog, there's lots of good questions to ask about the ramifications of newspapers creating Web sites filled with pictures of arrested people. What happens to the people who are not guilty? What if a slow parade of poor and minority faces distorts the community's understanding of who is committing crimes in their town?
Does a site like this give too much power to police, whose allegations of wrongdoing are the sole source of information for most entries?
But CNN's report stumbled on some facts, failing to deliver a thought-provoking piece because it was based on some faulty content.
The biggest shortcoming I saw, was that no one from the St. Petersburg Times, the team that developed Mug Shots or any newspaper that offers mug shots in print or online was interviewed for the story.
If no one from the newspapers agreed to talk, the reporter didn't say so -- leaving me to wonder if they tried to reach anyone who was actually publishing these mugshots. They did have interviews with a local attorney who advertises on the site, an area police officer and an area woman whose mug shot had appeared on the site, however.
CNN said Mug Shots was a creation of the Tampa Bay Times, getting the name of the newspaper wrong.
CNN said acquitted people would be removed from the law enforcement sites that feed into Mug Shots, but the guys behind our site tell me you need to get a court order for that to happen. Our mug shots are downloaded automatically from databases provided by law enforcement; their archives keep photos for more than a decade, regardless of whether the subjects are found guilty or not. Ours goes back 60 days.
CNN didn't really mention the one Web site which had made mugshots such a part of popular culture: The Smoking Gun.
CNN also said the issue was an invasion of privacy, without noting that the Mug Shots are public records, available to anyone. If CNN doesn't think it's invading people's privacy by reporting on police arrests and information gleaned from lawsuits, I'm not sure why publishing another public record -- a mug shot photo -- raises privacy questions.
CNN found a woman, 21-year-old Shannon Hulton (left), who was arrested in April for drunk driving and appeared on the Mug Shots site. The newschannel said that her mug shot will be seen in cyberspace forever, but that's not exactly true -- at least, not for the Times Mug Shot site, which only reaches back 60 days. If you Google Hulton's name today, the first two links that come up refer to her appearance in the CNN story.
And I know I'm nitpicking, but the reporter closed her story by saying those who operate mug shot sites "couldn't be happier" featuring these photos, which she couldn't know, because she didn't talk to anyone actually working at the Web sites.
It would have been good to see a TV story that offered some vigorous debate on both sides about the issues raised by Tampa Bay Mug Shots. Unfortunately, CNN didn't provide it.
See for yourself below.