How much crime news is actually news?

The Louisiana Legislature passed a bill in June that limited the ability of media outlets to publish photos of individuals arrested for non-violent crimes. We are the seventh state to adopt such a law, and it follows a recent trend of reexamining if the worst day of someone’s life is necessarily news for the rest of us.

I am completely supportive of this long overdue reflection. This is a good thing.

From the Louisiana Illuminator:

“In addition to the release of mug shots for violent crime suspects, officers will be able to circulate photos with no restrictions when it comes to arrests for video voyeurism, animal cruelty and several offenses affecting the health and ‘morals’ of children. 

“All booking photos, regardless of the seriousness of the offense, will also be subject to release once people plead guilty or are convicted of crimes related to their arrests.”

The practice of taking pictures of arrested citizens, dubbed mug shots, began way back in the 1800s. It served as a record and file, but it soon became a way to fulfill a pair of other purposes.

The first of these was deterrence. It was, and remains, an attempt to shame those who broke the law and discourage others from doing the same.

The other was dollars and cents. It was an easy and lucrative way to fill column inches in local newspapers. The practice became wildly popular among readers and transcended media forms and remains the standard of the journalistic world.   

I’ve been associated with the media for more than half of my life, and I disagree with a lot of what goes on, what gets coverage, what doesn’t get coverage, and the why behind it all. From print to TV and now the internet, I’ve always been amazed at journalists who have no qualms or crises of conscience about what counts as crime reporting. It has always struck me as profiting off the misfortune of others.

However, the totality of blame doesn’t lie on the reporter’s shoulders. After all, they’re just providing a service you want even if you claim you don’t. Crime news goes to the root of the worst of the human condition – fascination with violence and an even greater fascination with gossip.

In the old days, people demonstrated this through their nickels and dimes. Forking over silver to see which one of their neighbors was arrested for drunk driving or who was booked for whatever non-violent crime they bone-headily committed the night before. It drove sales, set eyes roving and tongues a’wagging.

Papers made a killing as people got their daily dose of gossip. Even Opie Taylor knew gossip is what people want. In a classic Andy Griffith episode, the pint-sized, red-headed rascal started a gossip rag and tore little Mayberry asunder. Even after Andy, Barney and Aunt Bea realized they led Opie astray with their whispers behind the backs of their neighbors, they still read the last issue before torching all the remaining copies. It played for laughs, but it’s a sad reality of the human race. As always, our condition can be summed up in the wit and wisdom of an Andy Griffith episode.

In today’s world, you illustrate your desire for bad news and gossip with every click of the mouse or press of the screen. Every share. Every like. The media is just giving you what you want. Appealing to those basic instincts that brought people to public hangings a couple hundred years ago and to the blood and sand of the gladiatorial arena a couple thousand years before that. It’s the same dark side of human nature that sparks people to chant and cheer and film during fights and make violent sports like football and UFC so popular. Violence and its collateral damage appeal to us.

But there is a new sentiment that rises higher than the dark depth of our base.

A couple years back, the Houston Chronicle stopped posting pics of those who have been arrested but not convicted. Those who are still presumed innocent under law. How many times do you see a story that reports charges were dropped or someone was found not guilty? Rarely. How many times do you see the initial arrest report? Often. Does it matter if the person didn’t do the crime? Not really because the damage to character and reputation has already been done.

The Chronicle gets that, and that’s why the paper changed its practices.

Mugshot slideshows whose primary purpose is to generate page views will no longer appear on our websites,” an editor was quoted at the time. “We’re better than that.”

In 2018, the Biloxi Sun-Herald did the same and went so far as to completely stop reporting on many low-level arrests. The article I read said the paper’s owners and editors did so because they were “worried that the overabundance of crime coverage created a false impression of southern Mississippi.”

Now, it’s not the job of the media to be the public relations arm of a municipality. It’s not the mandate of a news source to be a second chamber of commerce. The job of the media (at least as I see it) is to inform the public and hold public officials accountable while highlighting the good of the world in which we live.

So what constitutes crime news? I suppose that’s subjective, and we’ll never agree. We cannot agree how many genders there are. We cannot agree on when life begins. We cannot even agree if frosting turns a muffin into a cupcake.  So we’re not going to agree on this.

It’s all about what you believe. As for me, I follow the line of thought of an ever-growing number of media outlets and some state legislatures.

Consider: Does everyone need to know that Earl was pinched for possession? While we’re at it, do we need to know that Jack and Jill are filing for divorce or that Jordan is suing Jonathan for whatever reason? That’s right, local media has been known to run those things as well because people just can’t seem to get enough of knowing what goes on in their neighbors’ homes.

If you answered no to the above, then you’ve likely come to the same conclusion I have. There are a lot of things we don’t need to know because it’s just plain rude and bad mannered to be nosy and to gossip. There are a lot of things that are none of our business even if those things are “public record.”

I’m proud of our legislators on this one. I’m encouraged by the actions of a handful of media sources. We can be better. We don’t have to feed those basic instincts that have a lot of us gossiping and spreading dissension like the cancer it is.

We live in a cancel culture world. One where lots of people are looking for any opportunity to pounce and “put people on blast.” Thing is, I don’t want to read about you on your worst day, and I’d pray you wouldn’t want to read about me on mine.

By and large non-violent crime shouldn’t be news. Are there exceptions? Of course. But let’s realize the difference. Earl isn’t a criminal mastermind. He’s not moving large quantities of drugs and guns in the community. He isn’t an elected official embezzling your tax dollars. He isn’t installing spy cameras in your house and hacking into your bank accounts to steal your identity or frame you as an international diamond thief. Non-violent crimes of that nature should be reported.

Our Earl is simply someone who made a stupid mistake, one that’s probably already going to ruin his life and be known all over town. There’s no need to have a hand in making it known all over the world.

There’s a great many more stories to tell. Better ones than Earl’s. That’s just my opinion and perspective. Call me an idealist if you’d like. There’s a lot worse things to be called.

(Josh Beavers is a teacher and award-winning journalist. He has been recognized five times by the Louisiana Press Association for excellence in opinion writing.)

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