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Public Display: Are mugshot tabloids newsworthy or just sensational?

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Does watching the local TV news not satisfy your jones for mug shots and perp walks? A new publication in town might be just what you're looking for.

As its name suggests, Mugshot Mania is chock-full of mug shots, depicting suspects charged with everything from driving without a license to homicide.

"My intent was to put a face on local crime," says Shawn Kirkwod, the weekly paper's publisher. "Our intent is to educate the public about crime and help law enforcement deter crime. ... If we can show the face of a person wanted for a violent crime, we're certainly doing some good."

At $1 a copy, the inaugural Feb. 14 edition ran 16 pages and featured more than 300 photos. (Kirkwod says it's available at 160 Pittsburgh-area locations.) A "Missing Children" section features 20 photos of kids who've gone missing, along with a hotline to call. There are also more than three dozen registered sex offenders depicted.

The paper also includes contact information for local law-enforcement agencies and drug-rehabilitation programs, along with an astrology column, a sports-trivia quiz and a word search (in which readers can seek out such words as "bail" and "warrant").

"I had a woman call the 1-800 number and let me know she saw a fugitive [pictured] on the 'Most Wanted' page," Kirkwod says. "That's a wonderful thing."

Not everyone agrees.

"It's awful," says Maggie Patterson, a Duquesne University journalism professor who teaches courses in media ethics. Aside from the missing-children page, she asks, "What's the benefit here?"

Patterson says the paper fails to properly balance the public's right to know certain information versus its need to know. "I don't know why I need to know someone was arrested for a parole violation," she says. The paper "perpetuates [the idea] that we're in a world where we have to live in fear of these people who are out to get us."

(Each page of photos includes a disclosure advising readers that "[a]ll suspects are innocent until proven guilty.")

Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says mug-shot journalism has become increasingly popular nationwide. "These papers are all over the country, and they're pretty profitable," she says. But "I don't think they're journalistic ... What they're selling is voyeurism."

"Is it unethical to inform people about local crime?" retorts Kirkwod. "I really think we're serving a greater purpose," he says, adding that local law-enforcement agencies are "supportive" of it. (Diane Richard, spokesperson for Pittsburgh's police chief, says she has not heard of the paper. Daniel Burns, acting warden of the Allegheny County Jail, did not return phone calls for comment.)

More established newspapers have also joined the trend. The Beaver County Times, for instance, offers a weekly "Mug Shot Mondays" feature.

Whether Mugshot Mania will prove as sustainable remains to be seen: Its first issue featured only ads from fictitious businesses, like "Diamond Jewelers," which is "located in the Mall," and can be reached by dialing 000-123-4567.

Kirkwod, at least, seems to think the paper will be successful. While this is the first mug-shot tabloid he's published, he says he has "a game plan" to start similar papers in 18 other markets across the country.

The inaugural issue of Mugshot Mania
  • The inaugural issue of Mugshot Mania

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