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Feb. 14, 2017, 10:57 a.m.
Business Models

No mugshot exploitation here: The New Haven Independent aims to respect the reputations of those arrested in the community it covers

The news site has an unusual policy on crime reporting: No names or mugshots of those arrested unless they’re public figures, the arrest is judged to be a public emergency, or its reporters are able to interview the accused directly.

Last October, multiple Connecticut television stations published a slideshow prominently displaying the names and faces of the 14 women arrested in a New Haven prostitution sting that month.

A week later, the New Haven Independent, the nonprofit online news outlet founded in 2005, published a long piece examining the history and efficacy of these types of police sweeps in the city, which included an interview with, and a photograph of, one of the women, nicknamed Face, arrested that night. The piece details her experience leading up to the arrest, as well as her childhood, full of abuse and drug use.

“The NHI story is helpful to humanize the people who are being treated like criminals,” one commenter on the story wrote. Many others disagreed with spotlighting one of the women from the sting and publishing her back story online. “Did she get paid for the interview?” one commenter wrote. “Seems to me that your news site benefited while she did not. Some could call that the very definition of exploitation.”

New Haven Independent editor and founder Paul Bass, who wrote the story, replied: “I feel strongly that if the press quotes police officers and experts about what [should] be done with/for people who get arrested and are in hard times, we should try to have those people’s side of the story included as well.”

It’s a policy that the New Haven Independent has had since its founding, Bass told me: The outlet will not run photos of or name people who’ve been arrested — unless they’re public figures, the arrest is judged to be a public emergency, or the Independent is able to interview the accused person directly. When police departments release crime briefs, for instance, the Independent scrubs them of names before publishing. (Compare, for instance, the New Haven Independent and the New Haven Register’s stories on the same arrest.)

It’s a relatively uncommon crime reporting policy. “With the advent of the Internet, what’s online becomes people’s main or only source of news,” Bass said. “People’s reputations are at stake, and often the arrest itself and not the outcome is what is known about them.” The online-only Independent, which also operates the low-power FM community radio station WNHH, depends on the surrounding New Haven community for readership and financial support, as well as content. Many of the radio shows on WNHH, for instance, are run by community volunteers. (The station has some runway thanks to a Knight Foundation grant and another grant from a Connecticut-based foundation.) It’s moved from being funded largely by organizations outside Connecticut to being funded around 75 percent through local philanthropic support.

In New Haven, Bass pointed out, black people are disproportionately searched at traffic stops compared to white people, yet are less likely than white people to be carrying contraband. The mugshot-publishing business, too, is ethically shaky, with cheap-to-produce slideshows generating significant traffic for publishers while the people depicted, absent all context and without followup, are entombed in Internet search results. An investigation by Fusion last year found that of the 74 American (mostly chain-owned) newspapers it examined, 40 percent published mugshot galleries, including prominent papers in large cities, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times. (The Tribune, like many papers, includes a small disclaimer at the bottom of its galleries: “Arrest does not imply guilt, and criminal charges are merely accusations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty and convicted”).

Markeshia Ricks, a New Haven Independent staff writer, has been a reporter for about 15 years, working at news organizations from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to the Air Force Times. Every place she’s worked previously has named people who’ve been arrested, “with no question or discussion,” she told me. “This is the first place I’ve worked where we don’t publish someone’s name until the person is convicted.”

“In those 15 years, I’ve also never worked in a newsroom that had the resources to follow every arrest that we initially reported until it resulted in acquittal or conviction. All we were telling readers is that someone had been arrested and they’re in the local lockup on a certain bail,” Ricks said. “And I’ve always felt really weird about it, mostly because we don’t often come back and tell the story of what happened to that person, or even ask them their side of the story. So the only thing that is usually out there is that a person was arrested on some charge.”

The Independent’s debates on its own policy carries over into radio as well, Ricks said, pointing out a “Pundit Friday” segment about its story featuring Face. Had the sting specifically focused only on johns, would the Independent apply its policy to johns? Is applying that policy fair to the women who were arrested for selling sex? It’s a policy, Bass said, “we think and talk about a lot here.” (Dan Kennedy also discussed the Independent’s policy in his 2013 book, which we excerpted here.)

The Independent’s policy is unmatched in New Haven. Helen Bennett Harvey, executive editor of the New Haven Register, another major outlet in town, said that the Register doesn’t “necessarily have a specific policy” like the Independent’s, and just tries to consider the news value of each crime story before publishing. The Register, for instance, avoided publishing the names and photos of those arrested in the October prostitution sting in New Haven. (Bennett was recently named executive editor for Digital First Media’s Connecticut Group, so she is now also supervising newsrooms beyond the Register. She spoke to me based on her experiences leading the Register newsroom.)

“It sounds like it’s intended to be really, really, really fair,” she said. “We [at the Register] are careful with names. We do not publish names unless someone has been charged already, though there might be exceptions to that — if for instance, there were, hypothetically, someone who was wanted for something serious and there was a warrant issued for that person.”

“The Indy’s policy brings up an key point: that news organizations have to consider what’s newsworthy, and also what are people’s rights to know how justice is being carried out, who is being arrested,” she added. “We in Connecticut have had issues in the past of more people of color being pulled over at routine traffic stops than other people. News organizations do have a legitimate need to let people know who is or who is not being arrested, but we also need to be fair to people we cover.”

POSTED     Feb. 14, 2017, 10:57 a.m.
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