‘Compassionate’ Chicago Tribune takes aim at police mug shots

Al Capone (1931 mug shot)

Police booking photos of people who’ve been arrested — commonly known as mug shots — have been a staple of Chicago newspapers since before the days of “Scarface” Al Capone. But now they’re headed for the morgue.

On Wednesday the Chicago Tribune announced new guidelines “aimed at the restrained and consistent use of mug shots with news stories.” They’re part of an industrywide reassessment of whether newspapers should continue to publish the photos in an era of clickbait exploitation and eternal life online.

Colin McMahon

“Readers may associate law enforcement booking photos with criminal activity; their use might imply guilt of individuals who are, by law, considered innocent until proven guilty,” editor-in-chief Colin McMahon wrote in a note to readers.

“This is particularly critical as we examine how our journalism might reinforce racial stereotypes and amount to punitive coverage of people who enter the criminal justice system — the majority of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.”

The Tribune’s new guidelines “prioritize public safety, news judgment and compassionate coverage, and acknowledge inconsistencies in the criminal justice system that affect which mug shots are released and published online,” he wrote. (Here is the link.)

“We will still publish mug shots when we believe it serves a public safety purpose, such as potentially helping crime victims come forward. We will still publish mug shots in cases of high news value; for example, if the person is a public figure, such as an elected official, or when a crime is especially high-profile.

“Even then, however, our use of the mug shot should be considered and restrained.”

The Tribune has been deleting some mug shots from older stories for months, according to McMahon. “We will remove many of them as we come upon them, but at the moment, we have no technical fix to clear them all,” he added.

Sources said the Chicago Sun-Times also is reviewing its policy on the use of mug shots. It’s expected to release revised guidelines soon.

Wednesday’s comment of the day: Jim Turano: Sad and sorry to hear the news of Mark Napoleon’s passing. We had great fun with Mark on the afternoons early in our time on WGN 720-AM before his illness. Fun guy, good guy.