‘It’s pure schadenfreude’: Why mugshot galleries are going but not gone

Keri Blakinger is a staff writer at The Marshall Project

This week, major newspaper publisher Gannett stopped sharing mugshot galleries on GateHouse Media websites, joining a handful of other newsrooms including the Houston Chronicle, WRAL and WCPO. The move is part of a larger effort to address racial inequities and curb the spread of negative stereotypes.

“Mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value,” read Gannett’s editorial statement released June 10.

While mugshot galleries can boost website traffic and ad revenue, there is rarely follow-up reporting to account for wrongful arrests or other important case details. 

“It’s pure schadenfreude,” said Keri Blakinger, staff writer at The Marshall Project, in an email interview with the Institute. “Mugshot galleries have no news value, harm communities, and perpetuate racism by trotting out images of predominantly Black and brown people accused of crimes.”

We reached out to Blakinger to find out how news organizations can cover crime without contributing to prejudice and why these galleries are so harmful. 

Why do you think newsrooms are reconsidering the mugshot gallery?

Blakinger: I think part of the reason that this began changing was because of a shift in the national conversation around criminal justice generally in recent years. But also, newspapers were starting to get a deluge of takedown requests from people who wanted their images taken off the Internet. Then came the police killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests that forced many primarily white-run newsrooms to think even more critically about their relationships with communities of color and their coverage of police and crime. 

How does the removal of these images fit into the larger picture of police reform?

Blakinger: In this moment, it seems that more people are beginning to question police narratives. We’re seeing more and more video of police encounters with protesters that don’t square with official accounts of events, and I think it’s increasing awareness that simply because authorities allege something is true – or someone committed a crime – does not make it so. I think that realization should force newsrooms to re-evaluate their relationship with police narratives and police press releases.

Why does The Marshall Project avoid the use of mugshot galleries?

Blakinger: Because they are bad. Mugshot galleries have no news value, harm communities, and perpetuate racism by trotting out images of predominantly Black and brown people accused of crimes.

Mugshot galleries are known clickbait. Can you discuss if there is any value — editorially or financially — in keeping these on news sites? 

Blakinger: There is no editorial value. Mugshot galleries literally do not even involve reporting – they typically involve simply regurgitating materials sent over by police. It’s pure schadenfreude. Admittedly, yes, there is typically financial value to posting them, but we are morally failing as an industry if we’re willing to put up posts by that metric alone, especially when the publication of those posts causes direct harm to some of the most marginalized community members we serve.

What other types of criminal justice reporting might work better?

Blakinger: Basically anything else. 

How can newspapers cover criminal justice stories without feeding into negative stereotypes?

Blakinger: On a very basic level: Black and brown people should appear on your sites in places that are not mugshots or mugshot galleries. Instead, focus your energies on investigating the cracks and myriad flaws in the system. These are the stories that have impact – positive impact that benefits communities.

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