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How 5 On Your Side will handle police booking photos, or 'mug shots'

The KSDK newsroom is adapting standards for using these photos.
Credit: KSDK

ST. LOUIS — For decades, it has been standard practice in many newsrooms when someone is arrested to use the booking photo released by law enforcement, commonly referred to as a mug shot.  It is sometimes debatable what that photo really adds to the story; sometimes it provides necessary and vital information to the public, but sometimes booking photos add little, and might possibly do harm.

KSDK 5 On Your Side is mindful of the effect mug shots have on anyone charged but not convicted, especially people of color. Booking photos can reinforce negative stereotypes and become a barrier to housing and employment, regardless of whether the person is convicted of a crime. In the digital age, a mug shot can last forever online, even if someone is acquitted or the charges are dropped. If the only time our audience sees a Black face is in a mug shot, it can have a cumulative and negative effect.  

KSDK has the duty to seek and report positive stories in our more diverse communities, and we believe making sure mug shots are used for specific reasons represents positive change. While this policy is primarily about booking photos, commonly referred to as mug shots, it could apply to any image or photo of someone suspected of a crime.

KSDK has adjusted its guidelines that determine whether we will use a mug shot. The biggest difference in our updated plan is the requirement that a news manager has to be involved in the booking photo decision. One individual will not make the decision. Instead of using mug shots simply because law enforcement makes them available, KSDK will be thoughtful about minimizing harm to people accused but not yet convicted of a crime, while protecting the public and giving viewers information to keep them safe.

We’re explaining our policy in the interest of being transparent with our news audience.

1. News manager input: Use of any mug shot requires talking to a news manager.

2. Be fair and minimize harm: When KSDK covers initial criminal allegations, we will minimize harm and be thoughtful when using mug shots.  Part of our decision to use a mug shot will hinge on whether KSDK intends to follow the story until its conclusion.  If charges are dropped or a suspect is acquitted, would we run an update story?  If not, we should not use the booking photo. We will still publish mug shots in cases of high news value; for example, if the person is a public figure, such as an elected official, or when a crime is especially high-profile.

3. Danger to the public: Mug shot use could be justified if there is danger to the public.  Police may believe the suspect of the crime is still on the loose and it is important that our audience know what the suspect looks like.

4. Additional victims: Mug shot use could be justified if police have arrested a suspect, but officials believe there could be additional victims and the public needs to know what this person looks like to determine if they too may have been harmed by the suspect.

5. Digital and social media: KSDK staff will not use mug shots as the main image on a story or social media unless it meets the “danger to the public” or “additional victims” criteria. Viewers will have to click on a story to see a mug shot that meets our other use criteria.

6. High profile case: Use of a booking photo could be justified if a crime has become a national story or regional story. KSDK will give consideration to the age of the accused and the severity of the crime.

7. Follow-up coverage: Before we continue to use a mug shot, we will consider other photos or video available, so that use of a mug shot is not necessary.

8. Common names: If John Smith or Bill Johnson is suspected of committing a crime, using the booking photo might prevent confusion because the names are so common.

It’s likely 5 On Your Side’s mug shot policy will continue to evolve as technology and circumstances change. Older mug shots in our video archives and on ksdk.com are a challenge, but we are exploring ways to remove them from older stories when warranted.  

Art Holliday is the News Director of 5 On Your Side. He is reachable at aholliday@ksdk.com.

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