This post has been updated and corrected to reflect the fact that WSB-TV also blurred the photo of Antonio Cardenas-Rico.
I covered the stabbing deaths of two children Thursday, and immediately faced one of those journalistic conundrums. Perplexing as that was, it was compounded by the fact that my competitors handled it completely differently than I did.
Gwinnett police arrested a guy early Thursday morning. They announced the arrest, and a news conference in a press release. Within the press release was this plea: Please don’t publish / broadcast the mug shot of the suspect.
Thankfully, I don’t cover crime much anymore. But back in the day, we took requests like this very seriously. As in most such cases, Gwinnett cops told us that they needed to use the mug shot in a photo lineup. By publishing the mug shot, they argue, the value of the photo lineup — presented to witnesses to verify the identity of the bad guy — becomes worthless.
Here’s the problem: Police overplay this “we don’t want you to harm the investigation” card constantly. They use it as an excuse to withhold basic information about crimes. Lately, cops have used it to withhold the identity of those arrested — public information which falls within the “right to know” realm of a free society. “Because the investigation is ongoing, we can’t answer” basic questions, they say. In so doing, they overlook the fact that every criminal investigation is “ongoing” up to the moment that the alleged bad guy’s case is adjudicated. It’s a blanket excuse for cops to clam up. And reporters rarely challenge it.
Nobody in the news media wants to harm a criminal investigation. When a case is less than 24 hours old — as was the case when Gwinnett police arrested Antonio Cardenas-Rico Thursday morning on two counts of murder — the “you’ll harm the investigation” argument has much more credibility.
Amazingly, much of the Atlanta news media made a swift decision to disregard Gwinnett County’s request to withhold the image of Cardenas-Rico. WXIA and WSB-TV were, to my knowledge, the sole exceptions.
Gwinnett PD hurt its own case by misleading reporters who asked if Cardenas-Rico would have a first-appearance in Magistrate Court Thursday. There would be no appearance, a spokesman said emphatically. To their credit, WSB/AJC staffed the 1pm Magistrate court session anyway. Sure enough, Cardenas-Rico showed up, along with Gwinnett cops. WSB got the only video of the court appearance, and the AJC got photos. Once that happened, the AJC didn’t hesitate to use Cardenas-Rico’s image. WSB hesitated.
Perhaps the AJC felt that the public court appearance, and Cardenas-Rico’s mugshot on the Gwinnett Sheriff’s website, put the suspect’s image irretrievably into the public realm. Perhaps they felt the police department’s duplicity killed the credibility of its request to withhold the image. I might have made the same arguments.
I felt a counter-argument was equally strong: The image of the bad guy doesn’t give the public any useful, vital information. Our free-society interests aren’t served by going all freedom of the press! on a mug shot. Yes, the public has a fascination with mug shots — and in this case, it has an understandable interest in seeing the alleged face of evil.
But I didn’t want to be the media outlet that undermined an investigation into the murders of two tiny children. And I didn’t want to do it simply because my competition made a decision to do it. At least, not right away.
Knowing that the AJC was showing the mug shot on its web site, I called the Gwinnett police spokesman late in the afternoon. I squawked at him about his handling of the court appearance question. He continued to plead his case to withhold the mug shot.
His case wasn’t very compelling, but he was emphatic. When police officers aren’t acting like dipshits — and Gwinnett’s duplicity seemed to be a communication error as much as anything — I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, and yield to their professional judgment about crime fighting. They’re the experts on that stuff, not me.
(And it turned out the investigation was still in a very dynamic state. By Saturday, police had cleared Cardenas-Rico and arrested another suspect.)
Based on my recommendation, WXIA chose the route of caution and blurred the photo of Cardenas-Rico.
A day later, I had a phone conversation with a Gwinnett investigator who said: I don’t know why y’all did that. It was up on the AJC’s site all day.