Orlando Sentinel and other Florida papers stop publishing online databases of arrest mugshots

click to enlarge Orlando Sentinel and other Florida papers stop publishing online databases of arrest mugshots
Screenshot via Tampa Bay Times

Maybe it was the daily protests against racial injustices like the killing of George Floyd, or the pandemic and resulting furloughs, but Florida newspapers are finally getting the memo about publishing mugshots without context.

The Orlando Sentinel announced Friday they are no longer publishing their mugshot database at mugshots.OrlandoSentinel.com.

"The Orlando Sentinel is discontinuing the posting of arrest mugshot galleries effective today," began the three-paragraph post on their site. "We’ve come to realize that without context, the galleries have little journalistic value and may have reinforced negative stereotypes."

The change was overdue.

Orlando Weekly readers certainly love (like, really love) our online slideshows, but we have never published mugshot galleries.

The reasons why are pretty simple. Arrest rates are racially disproportionate, and mugshots can cost jobs, housing and more, all before a defendant even faces judgement in court. Although public records laws would allow us to download and display photos of arrestees, doing so subverts our justice system's already tenuous presumption of innocence, exposing the individuals to public shaming and scrutiny before they've been tried or convicted.

Some arrestees may well be violent, though without context their photo provides little service. Many, however, are behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes, probation violations and other arrests resulting from addiction and mental health issues.

The Sentinel will still publish mugshots of newsworthy defendants in crime stories, writing Friday, "We will continue to cover major crime stories, and in the reporting of those stories may use the mugshots of those arrested."

Fellow Tribune paper the South Florida Sun-Sentinel released the same statement on Friday. In 2018, all of Gannett's websites removed mugshot galleries, including at Florida Today, and last Tuesday the company announced 26 websites brought in from a later acquisition will also ditch the mugshot galleries.

Even though it's owned by the Poynter Institute, which is often critical of running context-free mugshots, the Tampa Bay Times continued publishing their own mugshot galleries until Monday, when they announced their own galleries have been pulled down, as well.

"The galleries lack context and further negative stereotypes," wrote Times executive editor Mark Katches. "We think the data is an important resource that our newsroom will continue to analyze and watch carefully, but the galleries alone serve little journalistic purpose."

Kelly McBride, a media ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, told Columbia Journalism Review in 2018, "Best practice would be to follow up on every single case."

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