Soon after George Floyd’s murder last year and the ensuring protests for Black lives, the Sacramento Bee reversed a long-standing reporting practice: It ceased posting mugshots and surveillance footage of alleged crimes that overwhelmingly incriminate Black and brown men.
“We just felt like running photos feeds into stereotypes of who is committing crimes and undermines the argument of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” Ryan Lillis, the Bee’s assistant managing editor, said.
Community input has been crucial to the Bee’s new approach to covering crime. In 2019, the newsroom partnered with Sol Collective, a grassroots arts and culture organization, to publish stories from young writers of color and identify problematic editorial habits. In addition to cutting down mugshots, the paper also drastically reduced its coverage of non-fatal crimes and stopped using racially charged words like “looting” to describe property destruction.
(There are a few exceptions to the new rule, notably for public officials and suspected serial killers. Last month, the paper ran an image of a police officer who had been charged with filing a false report against a young Black motorist.)
“My advice for anybody is just to listen,” he said. “Be willing to say you’re wrong and you’ll reach community leaders you’ve never reached before.”
In recent years, a growing number of local publications have begun questioning how their reliance on law enforcement for information — from identifying details of suspects to when and where crimes occur — have contributed to the hyper-criminalization and over-policing of Black and Latino communities.
And mugshot galleries, a crime story staple for more than a century, have been a flashpoint in this media reckoning on race.
There’s a strong commercial motive to publish booking photos, which have long functioned as “profit centers” that generate a torrent of traffic and remnant advertising revenue for newsrooms, Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, said.
“Local media say they cover crime because the ‘public needs this news to keep themselves safe,’” she said. “But what they actually do is cover crime in a very sensational, cheap, ‘low-hanging fruit’ kind of way.”
In the year since George Floyd’s murder, Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain that publishes USA Today, put together a radical approach to overhaul its crime reporting.
“We were asking ourselves if the old ways of doing it — of covering police logs and arrest logs — are akin to mugshot galleries, in that they don’t provide a lot of context and we don’t follow through all the time,” Hollis Towns, the company’s vice president of local news initiatives, said.
Towns led a group of editors to develop a training program that, over the next month, will be rolled out across Gannett’s more than 250 newsrooms. It offers specific guidance in terms of word choice: Don’t write “officer involved shooting,” for example, when you mean “the police shot someone.” The strategy also pushes reporters to rethink their coverage of low-level property and domestic crimes that aren’t necessarily public safety issues.
“The idea is to look at the totality of a string of burglaries, for example, rather than focus on individual businesses that were burglarized,” Towns said.
The trend of covering every criminal activity and posting a mugshot of every suspect can paint a distorted picture of a community. In Gannett’s Rochester newsroom, for example, one-third of stories are crime stories, Towns said, “but 30 percent of what’s happening there isn’t crime.”
“Our goal is to provide balance,” he said. “We want to show up in communities when there are good things happening: when gardens are being built, when kids are being offered college scholarships.”
In recent years, a host of major newsrooms have also set up protocols to alter or remove identifying details in old clips that no longer hold much news value but continue to affect people’s lives, permanently thwarting their employment and romantic prospects.
In 2018, cleveland.com implemented a Right to be Forgotten policy that allows readers to submit requests to have their names and mugshots scrubbed from crime reports that, in many cases, never led to a conviction.
This current “revolution in crime reporting” is an exercise in empathy, said editor Chris Quinn, who put together the initiative. “I couldn’t read another note from somebody telling us we were the vehicle for their suffering,” he said.
But manually sifting through and deleting thousands of decades-old mugshots is a messy and laborious task, Quinn said, especially given that many images aren’t identified in the system as mugshots. A new partnership could streamline the process: a $200,000 grant from the Google GNI Innovation Challenge will help editors develop algorithms to identify and purge all the mugshots in the outlet’s archives.
Last month, the Poynter Institute launched a new three-month training program to help 25 newsrooms address endemic racial biases in their reporting and produce more data-driven stories that hold the police accountable for abuses of power. McBride, who’s steering the initiative, said the idea is to stem the long-term ramifications of established media practices.
“My fear is that we’ll look back on this 30-year time period,” she said, “from the beginning of the war on drugs in the 1980s until now, and we’re going to say, ‘The news media were just as much of a problem as the police were.’”