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A mesmerizing mess of mug shots

As regular Glean readers may have surmised, I’m not a big spot-crime guy. While a tale of human depravity will occasionally suck me in, I generally don’t care unless there’s a serial offender coming after me.

But I have to admit I’m absolutely absorbed by Tampa Bay Mug Shots, which provides a rolling five-photo display of the area’s most recently arrested.

Because ethicists rip the practice, it qualifies as a guilty pleasure, even if those shown haven’t been convicted of anything. I’m sympathetic to U New Media Studies Director Nora Paul’s complaint in the L.A. Times — that journalism is about providing context and the site (which is fully automated) doesn’t — but I don’t agree.

This stuff is public info, and — voyeuristic though it may be — TBMS is doing exactly what media outlets should do in the Internet Age: repurposing public info for better consumption. The site also provides links to police reports, as well as overall demographic data — height, weight, age, gender, location, and eye color, though not race — which makes for an entertaining sideshow.

The site does contain an “innocent before guilty” disclaimer, which should be more prominent, and I’d include whatever the latest research showed on racial disparities for arrests. The site does feature links to newspaper crime stories and purges arrestee info after 60 days. As evidence of its own ethical qualms, TBMS doesn’t let search engines crawl the site.

(On some level, it’s delicious that this is the work of the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by a nonprofit foundation that also sponsors the high-minded Poynter Institute. The Times is also responsible for the critically acclaimed Polifact.com fact-checking blog.)

The Times reports TBMS got 100,000 hits in its first three hours after its April 6 launch. That’s traffic the locals would crave. Given its preoccupation with stem-winding miscreants, the Pioneer Press is a perfect local perch for this concept, though I expect TV stations are champing at the bit, too. And of course, there’s nothing stopping an online-only site from getting there first, though I highly doubt it will be this one.

[Hat tip: @agcummins.]

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by David Brauer on 04/14/2009 - 11:04 am.

    Jim: guilty pleasures invite ridicule, so thanks for that.

    I probably have never watched five minutes of COPS; the biggest reason is I don’t trust TV editing, if you know what I mean.

    The nice thing about TBMS is that there’s no editing, just bedrock public info, albeit in a well-designed package.

    I’m not exactly sure why a newspaper is necessarily tainted by such a move. Comprehensive public info is often presented. The Strib prints real estate sale prices and nobody squeals about invasion of privacy. Reputable sites nationwide publish police reports and no one calls for their heads.

    I am not so nutless as to rule out any whiff of baseness from my local media outlet. Of course there’s a question of emphasis and priorities, but frankly, I don’t think this has taken over the St. Pete Times.

    I’m frankly a lot more concerned about the micro-crime stories that occupy reporters rather than the workings of this auto-service.

    And as the NY Times well knows, its slogan is truer in the Internet age, when there’s more space for more stuff.

  2. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 04/14/2009 - 11:26 am.

    Jim Leinfelder: Do you disagree that media outlets in the Internet Age should repurpose public info for better consumption, irrespective of this particular example?

    I found the Tampa site informative and can see both benefits and detriments to this kind of thing. On the one hand, arrestees are innocent until proven guilty — and I have no problem remembering that, although it may be a problem for a significant fraction of the populace.

    On the other hand, a quick perusal of a hundred arrestees this morning would have me betting that 99% of them will be found guilty. Quite a number had previous multiple convictions, so for a community to know who they are by face and name might be beneficial in both protecting that community and in helping the arrestee go straight and avoid future entanglements with the law.

    There’s also the more pragmatic matters. This is public data, which means some people will get it anyway, even if the media doesn’t help. The internet cognoscenti already know how to find, view and distribute this kind of information, and they will. One might argue the media should do it so that the less sophisticated among society have somewhat equal footing.

    So I’m undecided.

  3. Submitted by Steve Aschburner on 04/14/2009 - 12:10 pm.

    I’m with Jim Leinfelder on this. Mug shots exist for a purpose, primarily an internal system for law enforcement to sort and track its guests. Putting them out there to shame and embarrass the “perps” (even that jargon presumes someone actually perpetrated the alleged deed) isn’t right, and a media organization that trafficks in that for Web traffic is pandering.

    I’d be more sympathetic if only the mug shots of those convicted were portrayed, as long as the public outing via Web site were read into the record at sentencing.

  4. Submitted by Jane McClure on 04/14/2009 - 01:34 pm.

    In St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, there was a huge push to get mug shots posted online several years ago. This was seen as a way to combat street prostitution. These were posted by community groups working with police, not by newspapers. . .
    When I edited Frogtown Times we were approached about publishing the mug shots in print (not online) and I said no. I didn’t see where online let along print mug shots would really do that much to deter crime — it just moves the problem to another neighborhood at best. And since I also edited North End News at the time and any crime sweeps in one neighborhood sent the criminals to another. . .
    More pragmatically, no one wanted to cover the costs and I didn’t see wasting the entire news hole on pictures.
    It would be interesting to see if there is ANY evidence to determine if this kind of publication has the effect communities want. I’d doubt it.

  5. Submitted by ken roberts on 04/14/2009 - 02:44 pm.

    For mg shots, I enjoy those that The Smoking Gun runs.

    Ken

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