Your Lost Coast Outpost was very pleased that North Coast Journal graphic designer Jonathan Webster allowed us to republish his essay on the Outpost and ethics of publishing mugshots. It was a thoughtful and mostly heartfelt piece of writing that looked at serious, complicated issues, and it came prepackaged with a killer title. (Maybe the Journal should invite him to punch up its chronically drab headlines?)
Webster’s case, in brief, is that by publishing booking photos of people arrested in Humboldt County, the Outpost unfairly heaps shame and humiliation on their heads. For the first time, people who are arrested for sometimes petty crimes have to worry about being recognized on the street. This is a new development, he argues, one made possible by the rise of the internet and social media. It causes people harm. Therefore, the Outpost should refrain from the practice of publishing mugshots, or limit the practice according to some yet-to-be-defined criteria.
There is much to appreciate in Webster’s argument, and there is much in it with which we agree. He’s wrong to suggest that this is a completely novel state of affairs. Webster may be too young to remember these days, but we pre-digital old-timers remember when everyone read newspapers, which were sort of the social media of their time; they published the same mugshots we publish today, presumably to the same effect. But he’s right that the invention of digital imagery, along with easy, instantaneous means of duplicating and disseminating such imagery, has certainly changed the dynamic in ways that warrant examination.
The fact that his attempt to do that is flawed – logically inconsistent and perhaps just a touch disingenuous – isn’t really a knock against it. There are no settled answers, here. It may seem like we’ve lived with the internet forever, but historically speaking we’re only in the very earliest days. Our culture, our mores and our laws are still catching up to the near-complete revolution in our means of communication over the last 15 years or so, and they’ll likely still be catching up for many years to come. We’re all still figuring this stuff out.
So we have no doubt that our take on the argument Webster advances is going to be flawed as well, and will no doubt come to seem weird and anachronistic and wrongheaded as time marches on. But we’ll offer it here anyway – not as a statement of eternal principle, but as a working theory of operations. Here’s why we do what we do (subject to revision), and here’s why we’re not going to do what Webster wants us to do.
To clarify his case, though: One thing that’s pretty apparent is that Webster is not concerned with questions of innocence and guilt, or about the difference between arrest and conviction. He’s not concerned about extrajudicial punishment (via the Outpost) of people who may have been arrested falsely, either through error or the sinister machinations of the police state. He simply wants to limit a certain type of such punishment, and to limit it only against a certain class of arrested person.
The type of hardship he’s concerned with is the hypothetical sense of shame he believes to arise from the publication of booking photography. To us, this “humiliation” seems far, far less damaging than the concrete impacts of arrest on one’s ability to arrange the necessary affairs of life: housing, employment, etc. But Webster is unconcerned about the latter things, at least in his present essay. He writes:
Normally, someone put in jail has to worry about what they’re going to say when they make their phone call and when a potential employer or date Googles their name someday. With LoCO and Facebook’s help, they now have to worry about the added humiliation of being recognized on the street.
Leave aside the ahistoric “now” in that last sentence – back issues of the Times-Standard will quickly show you that this new thing is nowhere near as new as he supposes – why is it that Webster’s hypothetical arrestee should have to worry about someone Googling her name, sometime in the future? Webster takes it as a given that the names of people arrested will certainly be published on the internet, next to the charges that landed them in jail. But why? If the Outpost were to refrain from publishing the unGoogleable (for now) booking photo, why should it not refrain from publishing the easily Googleable name? He doesn’t say.
Furthermore, he writes that it’s perfectly fine for the Outpost to mugshot-shame certain classes of otherwise innocent-until-proven guilty individuals. If an arrested individual is a well-known public figure, or accused of a violent or “egregious” crime, Webster says, then we should “by all means” run their booking photo, and before that person has been convicted.
He put this a touch more pithily in a Twitter exchange we had on the topic:
@LCOutpost don’t run mugshots of nonconvicted nonviolent arrestees unless the crime is uniquely bad or it’s one of the Arkleys— Jonathan Webster (@jweb460) March 19, 2016
One might imagine that he offered this rule of thumb with tongue in cheek, but since he later subtweeted himself to hammer the point home I’m not so sure. In either case, what Webster envisions is not so much an end to his posited practice of mugshot-shaming, but a constantly in-session newsroom trial court, in which reporters debate whether or not a given (nonconvicted) arrestee merits a thunderbolt of justice from the Outpost in the form of vengefully placed booking photo. In the case of the Arkley family, Webster can barely disguise his glee at the prospect.
This seems bizarre to us — not only because our work doesn’t exist to punish our (mostly nonexistent) enemies or reward our (even fewer) friends, and not only because the patchwork of results you’d get from each newsroom’s debate on what qualifies as “uniquely bad” seems like the precise opposite of an ethical standard, which is what Webster wants to advocate.
What makes it most bizarre is the alternative possible remedy Webster proposes to end the crisis at hand. He approvingly cites a couple of newspapers that post all mugshots, but only for a limited amount of time. Why is this bizarre? Well, if you remember correctly, Webster’s stated purpose in addressing this topic was to balm the wounds of arrested people who fear being recognized on the street. Does Webster not believe that most people read news on the day news is published? Does he believe that four people who somehow stumble across an post a month after the fact outweigh the thousands and thousands of people who saw the same post, with mugshot, in the hour it went up?
We are aware that Webster pays us a compliment when he narrows his lens specifically on the Outpost, without mentioning the many other local media outlets – the Times-Standard, the Mad River Union, News Channel 3, North Coast News, kymkemp.com, John Chiv’s website, even the Journal, once in a while – that publish precisely the same material he objects to the Outpost publishing, in precisely the same way, usually within minutes. From the very beginning of the Outpost, five years ago, we have tried to reinvent the news business in Humboldt County for a new medium and a new generation, and the attention he pays us is tribute to the fact that we have been successful, at least in that we have built an overwhelmingly large audience.
Perhaps because we are a digital-native operation, though, it is striking and a little bit touching to read Webster scold the Outpost for failing to uphold its duties as a “gatekeeper” of information. The usual thing, these days, is to cry for the disintermediation of information, and to celebrate when someone with the goods makes a run around the mainstream press to get stuff to the public. Which anyone with a keyboard, including law enforcement agencies, can do and does.
In point of fact, the gate Webster wants us to keep no longer exists. It’s not only that Humboldt County mugshots are public documents, which they are – it is that in almost every case these mugshots are public documents that are already in wide public circulation. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office puts the mugs it releases up on its website, as does the Fortuna Police Department; the Eureka Police Department puts theirs up on their Facebook page and Twitter account and on Nextdoor.com. The Arcata PD is more sparing with the photos it releases – a respectable enough stand, and one that nobody begrudges it – but it has often posted them to its own Facebook page.
In such a situation, what does the Outpost do? Pretend that the image that anyone can find, at the source, within seconds, does not exist? Do we serve our community by plugging our ears? What do we do about third parties, then? Do we spend our hours on the job deleting comments and reporting Facebook posts that publish the public-domain material that we ourselves decline to publish? It’s true that such a strategy — such a fundamental misreading of the medium and of our age — would cause the Outpost to decline, and perhaps to decline even more rapidly than the newspaper industry, which has so far misread the medium more spectacularly than anyone for 20 years running. But it doesn’t solve Webster’s ultimate problem. What do we do about the next Outpost? What do we do when people share mugshots directly from the pages of law enforcement agencies?
It’s not news to anyone that we live in between-times. Every technological innovation throughout human history has changed the world both for good and for ill. Take the case of our correspondent. On the one hand, the rise of the internet has led to the the rapid and uncontrollable spread of booking photography, which he deplores. On the other, it has given him a platform from which to deplore it. In a less free and democratic time, an editor less generous than myself may have roundfiled Webster’s essay with a laugh, confident that its mostly honest attempt to grapple with the shortcomings of his publication would never reach human ears.
But the furies have flown the coop, and the situation Webster describes will soon be even more acute than it has been previously. Soon, we have been told, the Humboldt County Jail will follow the lead of Mendocino County — and, really, most places — by publishing the booking photos of all people taken into custody, on whatever charge. If the serial burglary or armed robbery suspects are mugshot-shamed today, then the singular drunk-in-public case will be mugshot-shamed tomorrow. How do we deal with that?
Our answers are tentative. The first is perhaps a bit faith-based, but it’s a faith drilled into me by my J-school instructors: The answer to incomplete information is more information. At the Outpost, this comes in a couple of forms. On the one hand, a very large portion of our revenue — a much larger portion than any other media outlet in the county, I would hazard — goes toward paying reporters to do original reporting. In our case, that generally comes in the persons of my colleague John Ferrara and our senior reporter Ryan Burns, who lately has been providing the county’s best coverage of the trial of Gary Bullock and of Jason Anthony Warren’s trial before that.
But even if we were to divvy up duties, there aren’t enough reporters in the county to report the outcome of every case. Every day about 25 people, on average, are booked into the Humboldt County Jail, all of whom will soon be mugshotted. Several commenters under Webster’s post wished for a BOOKED-like system that would tell us whose charges have been dropped, which cases were plea-bargained out, which cases were taken to trial and the outcome of those trials. Well, we’ve wished for such a system for a long time now — a couple of weeks ago, most recently. Imagine if every of Outpost story that mentioned an arrest were automatically updated as the case progressed through the criminal justice system. Such a thing is perfectly feasible, and the Outpost will be the thing that builds it, here in Humboldt County. (Can you imagine anyone else building it?) What we need to unleash, first, is public data held by the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office and the Superior Court. Other California counties — Fresno, for example — make this information instantly available to all. Humboldt is a bit behind times, technologically speaking, but we will get there.
Perhaps that’s a side-note, though. For the reasons above, our answer to Webster’s essay, or at least the part of it that holds together, is that we’re going to keep doing things as we have been doing them. For now. We, all of us, are only barely coming to grips with the changes wrought by the digital revolution, and the old American instincts — the right of the public to documents that are made and gathered in their name, emanating from their authority — are still a little too strong to discard, even if we had the power or inclination to do so.
This isn’t to say that we can’t envision a time when this is recalibrated somewhat, when the balance between the right to privacy and the right to know is altered to fit the new times we find ourselves in. The European “Right to be Forgotten” is one (kind of problematic) attempt to do that, and there will beyond doubt be more such attempts. They will attempt to redress real grievances from real people. The Outpost awaits them with open mind and open heart.
Throughout this too-long response, I have more or less stipulated to Webster’s original charge — that the publication of a booking photo brings a unique brand of embarrassment to those portrayed, whether innocent or guilty, or whether convicted of a crime or merely charged with one. Though I’ve personally spoken to many mugshotted folks who were not crippled by the experience, I have no doubt that others felt the pain more keenly.
Something like the same variety of reaction exhibits itself when it comes to the “pull up your pants!”-style commentary we sometimes deploy when, say, a drunk man with illegally ineffective pants attempts to run from the police, then fights them and spits on a nurse. We take these moments, times when everyone walks away more or less whole, with a shake of the head and eyes naturally, humanly a-goggle. They are stories that seem to tell us something interesting about the time and the place we live. Webster seems inclined to read such simpleminded, awestruck reactions as the fiery wrath of an offended god; but then, as a few minutes on his Twitter feed will show you, his engine can run a little hot from time to time.
We read into things that which we want those things to say. We imagine that this is somewhere near the root of the embarrassment that someone may feel when his booking photo is shown to others — that they will fill that empty vessel with stories of their own, that they will take the fact that he has been brought low for a moment as proof that they, themselves, have led exemplary lives, and belong to some higher plane of humanity. Well, the LoCO can’t stop people from seeing your mugshot, and it certainly can’t stop them from thinking the thoughts they’re going to think. But it’s enough to make us want to go out and get arrested ourselves, in solidarity. Give it time — when one of us inevitably does end up in the pokey, for whatever reason, our mugs will be right there with yours.
If we were to offer any words of wisdom to people who find themselves in this 21st-century pickle, they would be from a 19th-century novel. Take it all in the spirit of Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennett, who sloughed off a moralizing preacher — the comment-section scold of his day — with a thought that cheered his daughter mightily: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”