Booking mugshots, arrest records and police blotters have been on readers’ minds a lot lately. And that makes sense because how The Kansas City Star reports on crime has always been a top concern at my lines.
By DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
I have heard a great deal of reaction to recent stories about the website Blabbermouthkc.com, the creation of Matthew Creed, 30, of Shawnee. The site, which Creed shut down last week, harvested police booking mugshots from local law enforcement websites. It posted the photographs, along with the arrestee’s personal information. Letters were then sent to the homes of the people pictured, notifying them that their photos were on display and offering to remove them for $199.99.
Readers have had several points of view of The Star’s coverage of the story. Most said it was a valuable public service. “If (The Star) hadn’t put this on the front page, who knows how many lives could have been ruined?” asked one caller last Friday, when news of the website’s shuttering hit.
There were critics, though. Several readers told me they thought the reports themselves were fine and interesting but should not have included the name of the website.
“I don’t understand why The Star was even giving this guy all the free publicity in the first place,” said a caller. “Did you have to give out his Web address? I think he had to be laughing every time he got a hit from that.”
That’s a tricky question, and it comes up often when journalists report on people making money in a way that poses legal or ethical dilemmas. While news coverage isn’t an advertisement per se, it’s undeniable that it can raise any venture’s public profile considerably — and there’s truth in saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity, particularly when the subject’s notoriety is part of its marketing plan.
Others questioned why the Blabbermouthkc site was even news in the first place. One of my callers correctly pointed out that similar sites and print papers have done similar things elsewhere in the country. She thought the media should simply ignore these “bottom feeders” entirely.
“Arrests are public record anyway, are they not?” wrote one user on The Star’s Facebook wall. “If you don’t want your mug shot plastered all over, don’t be a criminal.”
That poster is correct — arrest records are prime examples of public records. However, as the news story on Blabbermouthkc’s shutdown made clear, it’s important for journalists to use judgment in reporting on them.
Stacie, one of the people whose mugshot appeared on the site, had been arrested for criminal damage to property after a misunderstanding when she had locked herself out of her own house. A judge dropped the charges within 12 hours, and she was certainly never convicted of any crime.
This is a vital distinction. Many arrests never result in convictions, so journalists must always weigh questions of the severity of the accusation when deciding whether to report on them.
For example, an emailer last week asked for help finding whether The Star had reported on the arrest of an individual on prostitution charges. I wasn’t able to find the name she was looking for, and that didn’t surprise me. Unless the person arrested were a public figure, these types of common charges aren’t generally newsworthy in and of themselves.
But readers still often remind me that they want The Star to stay on top of even what some people might consider “minor” crimes. The “Safety Net” police blotters that run in the Neighborhood News sections sometimes don’t appear either because of lack of space or because police have a backlog in distributing the data.
Those omissions nearly always result in calls from readers who track the robberies and assaults in their neighborhoods. One recent caller summed it up: “Cut anything else but not my crime reports. Well, that or the Sudoku.”
To reach Derek Donovan, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call weekday mornings at 816-234-4487.