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Media taking mug shots -- foreign, familiar -- to bank

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  • "These are pictures of monsters who actually exist," says expert on media, law
  • Several magazines contain nothing but mug shots from community
  • "Publication seems to sell best where the crime takes place," publisher says
  • Expert: Publications would provide details if they're performing public service
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By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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(CNN) -- Newspaper, magazines, Web sites and a few book publishers are tapping into a curious American fascination: mug shots.

Publications like Local MugSHOTS run nothing but photos of recent arrestees in a community.

You don't have to commit a violent crime; you don't have to be convicted; you don't even have to be a celebrity (though for some publications, it helps).

Just get arrested -- no charge is too small -- and your mug could grace the pages of a local magazine or Web site.

But why are we drawn to these unbecoming images of our fellow residents? Are Americans simply voyeurs? Or in their eternal vigilance, do Americans seek to learn whether their neighbors are pederasts, thieves, drunk drivers or loiterers?

John Watson, associate professor of journalism at American University in Washington, said, "We like being frightened without being in actual peril."

One needs look no further than the existence of horror flicks to see the phenomenon in action, he said, and the fact that mug shots are of real people make them more appealing than werewolves and masked men with chainsaws.

"These are pictures of monsters who actually exist, and we can look at them from the safety of wherever we are, and they disappear when we close the book," said Watson, an expert on journalism ethics.

Celebrity mug shots have a different allure in that they feed off human schadenfreude; they allow us to say, "Well, this starlet isn't so rich and glamorous now, is she?" Photo See Paris Hilton's, Frank Sinatra's mug shots »

Mug shots of strangers have a raw entertainment value. Americans seem to be titillated by images of arrestees, and several media outlets are capitalizing on it.

Online newspapers such as Newsday and the Palm Beach Post run sections of nothing but mug shots of people arrested the day before. Other Web sites intermingle celebrity and historical mug shots, like the ones on display at thesmokinggun.com, with those of average Joes and Janes. There are also numerous books -- "Least Wanted" and "Booked," among them -- dealing in mug shots, both famous and layperson.

Though most newspaper editors contacted for this story declined to comment, Tim Burke, the Palm Beach Post's deputy managing editor, explained the Post's mug shot feature was "hugely popular" among readers, attracting several thousand clicks a day.

"It's just another way of getting readers online," he said.

Watson said mug shots make good newspaper fodder for three reasons: They are generally cheap or free to obtain, readers enjoy them, and they're "legally safe" to publish, meaning you can't be sued for printing what is essentially a government document.

"There's low risk and a high level of consumer salability," said Watson, who also holds a law degree.

Max Cannon, publisher of Local MugSHOTS, knows this firsthand. His publication is one of many weekly magazines that provide community roundups of recent arrestees.

Like other publications -- see Jail, Cellmates, Busted and Gotch-ya! -- the Clearwater, Florida-based Local MugSHOTS sells for $1 and provides little editorial content outside photographs, names and charges.

Cannon said the idea came to him about eight years ago. He was publishing a free magazine called "Profiles" that he distributed to doctors' offices and restaurants in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was a "waiting room publication," he said, containing jokes, riddles, odd factoids and some Rutherford County mug shots.

After hearing that mug shots were also popular in the local Daily News Journal, Cannon had an idea.

"We put in more and more mug shots and less and less jokes," he said. "We expanded the pages and charged $1 for it. We distributed it through convenience stores."

Now, Local MugShots has a circulation of about 250,000 across nine states. Cannon even uses filler pages -- of celebrity mug shots, famous prisons, women on death row -- to accompany the mug shots from the targeted regions, which are generally low- to middle-income neighborhoods in metropolitan areas.

"The publication seems to sell best where the crime takes place," Cannon said.

Cannon also includes photos of fugitives and sex offenders, which he said provides a public service. A reader in Tennessee once recognized a local sex offender as her child's softball coach, and this year police in Leon County, Florida, apprehended a man accused of robbing a Wal-Mart after a reader recognized him from Local MugSHOTS, Cannon said.

But what about mug shots of people who have already been arrested? Is there a public service in publishing those?

Some publications, such as Local MugSHOTS, offer only names and charges. The Palm Beach Post adds the date and time of the arrest. Newsday provides a few paragraphs of details regarding the incident.

Watson said that unless publications give readers details, like Newsday does, any claim to be providing a public service is tenuous.

"Here's a bad guy. Is that a public service? Maybe if you look at it with a very jaundiced eye," he said. "If you were really doing a public service, you'd point out specifics."

An example is public lewdness. In some cities, Watson said, you could be arrested for public lewdness for urinating on a telephone pole.

However, if someone's photo appeared in a local publication with the only detail being that the charge was public lewdness, the reader is left to wonder whether "you're exposing yourself to children or you got drunk and are taking a leak in an alley."

Ken Deffenbacher, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has done studies on the effects mug shots have on witnesses to crimes.

In the case of newspapers and magazines publishing mug shots, there is little threat of miscarriage of justice unless there is a witness who did not come forward at the time of the crime and whose memory may be tainted by seeing the mug shots, he said, conceding the possibility was remote.

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He otherwise likened mug shot audiences to people who comb through obituaries or wedding and divorce announcements, either out of curiosity or to search for neighbors or long-lost pals.

"I just really don't know why people find it fascinating," Deffenbacher said. "If the main reason is voyeurism, it's as American as apple pie, I guess."

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