Ethical problems with online mugshot galleries

John Thomas was one of the last speakers at the Digital Ethics Symposium. He had previously worked as the online editor for Playboy Magazine for ten years, has written various articles on digital ethics, and now works for Groupon. Because of his background in journalism, particularly online, it was interesting to see him compare the ethical standards of print vs online journalism as well as the lasting effects. Because making corrections online is easier than reprinting many copies of a newspaper, we assume that online is often more correct. However, many major new sources (including CNN) do not have online corrections policies. The implications for these can be long lasting.

In his presentation Thomas brought up a slide that had to do with mugshots posted online. Google has software that can search for images of people based on the structure of their face, what would happen if a potential employer found someone’s mugshot online? The person would be denied the job and would have no idea why.

Thomas points out that arrests do not imply guilt and that a defendant is supposed to be assumed innocent until proven guilty or convicted, but there are no galleries of exonerated mugshots posted online. A person could have been wrongly arrested and photographed, found not guilty, but their mugshot could still live forever online with no implication of innocence. It is quite easy to detroy someone’s reputation online, and once information is out there it is hard to repair it.

Thomas also mentioned how newspapers such as the Tribune post galleries of mugshots to gain page clicks and sell advertisement space. The New York Daily News published one gallery titled “World’s Most Hilarious Mugshots.” Thomas asks why newspapers renowned for their journalistic integrity would post mugshots of people who were arrested but not yet convicted.

It is also important to note that in some of these galleries the people pictured are being ridiculed and mocked. These people may be homeless, mentally ill, or battered. It is truly cruel that such mugshot galleries have become popular to gain readers when they’re based on the defamation of people who have no means to defend themselves online. They cannot change posts and say they were exonerated and they may not even know of a gallery they’re in.

Thomas blames lazy journalists, where a mere copy and paste of funny mugshots can get them money as freelance contributors. What was interesting was Thomas’s personal connection to this subject – at one point in time he had written an article called “Nine Surprisingly Sexy Mugshots” for Playboy. While not as inherently cruel as other articles, he claims that he deeply regrets it. The problem with online ridicule is that it follows a person forever as it is hard to delete. Posting mugshots online in newspapers for the purpose of sheer enjoyment or mockery isn’t fair journalism and can have long lasting implications.

Ella Henning


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