"On Nov. 5, the Times Free Press published a front-page story about the arrests of 32 men charged with gun and drug crimes after a four-year local and federal investigation. Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd called the suspects the 'worst of the worst' in Chattanooga's criminals," Alison Gerber, editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee, wrote to readers on Sunday.
"We heard no reaction from readers. Not a peep.
"On Nov. 17, the newspaper published a second front-page story about the suspects and their criminal histories. This time, we were barraged with feedback. Some of the words used to describe the report: irresponsible, distasteful, racist.
"The difference? The second story included the mugshots of all 32 suspects. And the photos highlighted something: All 32 suspects are black men.
"See their faces all in one grouping and you can't ignore that. You can't just shrug it off.
"It was an in-your-face presentation, and some readers thought it was a mistake, that we should not have published the mugshots at all. Even some in the newsroom disagreed with the decision to run them – or thought we should have placed them on an inside page where they wouldn't be as noticeable and would be seen by fewer people.
"Many argued with the choice to refer to the men as the 'worst of the worst,' even though those words were chosen by Dodd, a man who's been in law enforcement for a quarter of a century.
"The combination of those two things – the photos of 32 faces and the label 'worst of the worst' – prompted a visceral reaction.
"Some of the people who complained didn't read the story, which was balanced and actually asked why the 'worst of the worst' were only black. . . ."
Gerber was apparently unaware of lessons learned at the Philadelphia Daily News when it published a similar front page in 2002. That front page pictured 18 police mug shots of fugitives wanted for murder by Philadelphia police. All were either African American, Hispanic or Asian.
It did not matter what the story said.
Attorney Sharif Street, eldest son of then-Philadelphia Mayor John Street, said then that the portrayal would make life tougher for every young African American male in Philadelphia.
"I'm not so much focused on the text of the story but more on the imagery of the front cover," said Street, who was 28. "It damages the quality of life for the average male my age because it portrays us as the enemy of society."
Ellen Foley, managing editor at the time, apologized to the people of Philadelphia. Protesting the front page, the Coalition for Fair News Coverage emerged, "an organization made up of more than 100 African-American church, community, civic, civil rights and business organizations, all with a simple message for black readers of the Daily News: Don't buy it; don't read it," Kia Gregory and Jonathan Valania reported in 2003 for Philadelphia Weekly.
"Eight days after the publication of the 'FUGITIVE' issue, which brought the Daily News countless letters and phone calls – both critical and supportive – the newspaper issued an apology to its readers.
"After 'much soul-searching' in the newsroom, the apology read, it was apparent that "the front page hotos ... sent the message to some readers that only black men commit murder."
Then-Editor Zack Stalberg was on vacation when the mug-shot issue was published, and "believes the cover was a mistake," Gregory and Valania wrote.
"'That was bad journalism on our part,' he says. 'First, we failed to ask the larger question of why all the fugitives that were wanted during that time period were nonwhite. Second, we made a mistake visually and repeated one guy's picture three times. Thirdly, the cover gave the impression that the only people committing murder in Philadelphia are nonwhites.
"Stalberg says if he had seen the cover before it went to press, he would have pulled it. . . ."
Michael Days, now the Daily News' editor, then its deputy managing editor, said in the Weekly story, "I thought we were doing our readers a favor by getting some pretty bad people off the street. Sometimes we are guilty of tunnel vision. The visual impact of all those black men accused of crimes – well, you can imagine the message that sends. I would not have seen it that way if I had been in the newsroom that day. I see every cover before it goes to the printer, and I would have waved it through. However, in the wake of all this reaction, I would not make that mistake again." Days is African American.
Chattanooga is not Philadelphia, but there are similarities. African Americans are 34.9 percent of Chattanooga's population, and 43.4 percent in Philadelphia, according to census figures. In the Tennessee city, black men make up most of the city's shooting and homicide victims, which is likely in Philadelphia as well.
In defending her paper, Gerber wrote, "The newspaper didn't arrest or indict the men. We didn't label them the city's worst criminals. We did, after much discussion, make the decision to publish their photos.
"Even if we had not done so, that would not change the fact that 32 black men were arrested and branded the worst of the worst. It still happened, even if we didn't run the photos. But when no one had to see those 32 faces all in one place, it was easier to ignore the fact that the suspects were all men and were all black. It might make the round-up more palatable, but it wouldn't change the facts.
"So even though the paper caught some heat for running the mugshots, I believe it was the right thing to do.
"Yes, my phone rang with calls from angry readers. Yes, people called radio stations and debated the decision, and displayed their rage on social media (some supported running the mugshots).
"But at least people are now talking about this issue. And people are not just talking about the arrests, but about the societal conditions that push people to choose crime – poor education, lack of jobs, criminal records that, even if they want to go straight, make it difficult to find work once they get out of jail. All of these issues were raised at a meeting the NAACP held Tuesday night to discuss the arrests.
"In other words, the display of mugshots got people talking about possible solutions.
"Not a bad thing. . . ."
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(Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (www.mije.org). Reprinted on The Root by permission.)