Suspect’s mug shot: to publish or not to publish?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Los Angeles police investigating the assault of a San Francisco Giants baseball fan at Dodger Stadium on opening day are asking the news media not to publish the leaked photo of suspect Giovanni Ramirez. They are concerned that dissemination of the photo will influence witnesses who will be called in for police lineups.

It’s a valid law enforcement concern and an interesting illustration of the dynamics between the right to a fair trial and freedom of the press. It also raises some questions about whether news organizations should consider the consequences of the publication of an inarguably newsworthy image.

The assault and its aftermath have been a major news story, both in California and across the nation. The arrest of a suspect in the brutal attack was obviously a major development and the public is interested in knowing more about who is allegedly responsible, including seeing a photograph.

When news organizations receive leaked materials, they have an ethical obligation to weigh the newsworthiness of that material against potential harm. There’s no way of knowing whether the radio station website or television station that briefly published the images did that kind of review, but both pulled the photo after hearing from police. The Los Angeles Times also announced that it would not publish the photo.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees suspects a fair trial. That means police and prosecutors have a duty to conduct a fair investigation and not to poison the jury pool. The First Amendment, on the other hand, gives the news media a free hand in publishing virtually any truthful content, largely independent of its potential impact on a fair trial.

In this case, both law enforcement and the news media did their jobs. The police tried to protect the integrity of the investigation and the news media decided to post – and then to pull – the mug shot. The key is that the decision not to publish came after a conversation, not coercion.

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