My professor had just started her lecture on semiotics and the implications of pairing photos with article text.

A photo of one of my peers stood out in my mind—more specifically, a mugshot.

On February 2, a fourth-year Ryerson journalism student Eric Do and two other Toronto men were arrested for breaking and entering and mischief under $5,000 after they were caught “roof-topping.” Do and one other were also charged with possessing “break-in” instruments.

The Eyeopener and Ryersonian used Do’s mugshot as a feature image—something that didn’t sit right with me. Anyone who has seen Do’s social media accounts knows that he takes great photos on these “roof-topping” expeditions, and the papers could have used any one of those.

The mugshot added only shock value. This was a student who won awards for his business writing and for being a “promising journalism student”’ previously published by respected industry sites like J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). His face was not one we would expect to see in a mugshot.

The Toronto Star used a “roof-topping” photo of city lights that had been previously submitted to the paper in 2012. The National Post’s feature image was also taken from a rooftop, but included among other photos and videos near the bottom of the story were the three men’s mugshots in a row.

An American school paper was faced with the same decision in 2013, but went the opposite direction. At California’s El Camino College, a prominent football player was charged with possession of a firearm and marijuana. Jessica Martinez, the news editor at El Camino College Union got her hands on the mugshot after many phone calls and decided against running it with the front-page story. College Media Matters, a blog run by college journalism professor and scholar Dan Reimold, wrote in response to Martinez’s decision, “You don’t need to publish something just because you have it. Humanity can trump transparency without sacrificing good journalism. And it can be advantageous to make time for second thoughts, even while on deadline.”

Online Journalism: An Essential Guide, an ebook written by journalism professors Paul Lashmar and Steve Hill, questioned the ethics of how mugshots play into how a person is portrayed. In one example, a man named Winston Silcott was charged with murdering a police officer in 1985. Although family members had submitted other pictures of Silcott, the media continually used his mugshot through the coverage, even when he was freed on appeal. The book, stating that the mugshot was “hardly flattering and exacerbates Silcott’s image of criminality,” also points out that it implies that the media intended for a negative light to be cast upon Silcott. While I doubt that the writers at The Eyeopener and Ryersonian wanted students to look at Do as a criminal, I am reminded of what my professor was discussing during that lecture: photo selection, placement and framing, and the connection with the content of the text all work together to provide meaning beyond just what the picture shows.

 

Thanks to Frank Sinatra Mugshot for the featured image.