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Ethics Case Studies
Publishing Drunk Drivers’ Photos

WHAT: As the publisher/editor of a 5,700-circulation, chain-owned weekly newspaper in Anderson County, Ky., Don White often received phone calls from local residents begging him to keep their names off the court records page of the paper. After learning from an anti-drunken driving coalition that the battle against drunk driving had “hit a brick wall,” White decided to heed the group’s call for more innovative sanctions against drunk drivers.

When readers of The Anderson News picked up the Dec. 31, 1997, issue of the newspaper, stripped across the top of the front page was a New Year’s greeting and a warning. “HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR,” the banner read. “But please don’t drink and drive and risk having your picture published.” Readers were referred to the editorial page where White explained that starting in January 1998 the newspaper would publish photographs of all persons convicted of drunken driving in Anderson County.

“Most violators of the law dislike having their name in the local paper. We hope the certainty that their picture will also be published will keep more drunks off our highways,” White wrote. He also published state and national drunk driving statistics and stories about seven people killed by drunk drivers.

In February 1998, White published 1-column by 3-inch-deep photos of two persons convicted of DUI during January. Both had been arrested before White announced his policy. In March, 12 mug shots appeared, followed by 20 in April and 11 in May. In May, White also revised his policy. Instead of publishing all DUI (driving under the influence) convictions in the county, he limited the photos to residents of Anderson County or surrounding counties where the News circulates. He also began publishing the photos weekly rather than monthly.

After a person charged with DUI was convicted or pleaded guilty, the county jailer (who is elected in Kentucky) supplied the information and the photo taken at the time of the arrest to the newspaper. Under each photo the newspaper printed the person’s name, age, place of residence, date and time arrested, charge, blood alcohol level and date convicted. The paper published the photos regardless of the age of the offender and made no distinction between first offenders and those who had been arrested before for DUI. The only cases in which photos were not published were those where the DUI suspect was injured, taken to the hospital for treatment and, although charged, never processed at the jail and never photographed. Only once did White give any person special treatment. When the chairman of the county Democratic Party was convicted of drunk driving for the second time in five years, White published his mug shot and a story on Page 1 rather than on the district court page where the photos usually ran. Before someone’s photo was published, the person’s name usually had already appeared in the paper twice—after the arrest and after the arraignment.

Question: Is this an appropriate policy for a newspaper?

WHO: Circulation of The Anderson News apparently was unaffected by the policy. It’s unclear whether publishing the photos directly affected DUI arrests or accident rates in the county. In 2003, Anderson was the only one of Kentucky’s 120 counties to record no traffic deaths. However, for the years 1999 through 2003 the percentage of collisions involving alcohol is Anderson County was 4.7 percent, slightly higher than the state average of 4.4 percent for that time period. No one knows how many prominent local citizens did not drink and drive because of the policy. Some evidence is anecdotal. White knew of one group of teens who chose not to drive after drinking for fear their pictures would be in the paper.

Police told White one teenager tried to commit suicide after his DUI arrest because he feared his picture would be published. Some whose pictures appeared said the publication hurt their families, particularly their children. The management of the chain that owns The Anderson News did not interfere in White’s decision to publish the photos. The policy applied only to drunken driving convictions and not to any other misdemeanor or felony offenses. Apparently, no other newspaper followed White’s lead and adopted a similar policy.

WHY: Newspapers have an obligation to seek the truth and report it. But in what form should that truth be reported? Is a listing of DUI arrests and convictions sufficient to inform the community or does publishing photographs of those who are convicted or plead guilty further the goal of truth-telling?

This case raises important questions about fairness and the role of a newspaper in a small community. Does fairness mean treating every individual convicted of drunken driving the same regardless of whether the person is an adult or a juvenile, or whether the person is a first or repeat offender? Is it fair to single out only those convicted of drunk driving while not routinely publishing photos of persons convicted of felony offenses such as rape or robbery? Is the newspaper imposing an additional punishment on drunk drivers that other convicted criminals in the community do not face? Is it the newspaper’s job to determine the community will benefit more from publication of the photo of someone arrested for a misdemeanor DUI offense than the photo of a convicted child abuser or sex offender?

Undoubtedly, reducing drunken driving is a noble goal for the newspaper, but should the newspaper purposely embarrass individuals in an attempt to achieve that goal? No one disagrees with the need to keep drunk drivers off the road. The disagreement is over whether publishing the photos will, in fact, achieve the newspaper’s goal. Will the policy keep alcoholics off of the road? Will prominent people who would lose face in their community if their photos were published be more likely to refrain from drinking and driving? What about the impact on the families of those whose pictures appear in the paper?

HOW: One can argue that The Anderson News’ DUI photo policy was designed to minimize harm to the community by reducing the number of drunk drivers on the county’s highways. On the other hand, the policy did not minimize harm to those convicted. Particularly harmed by the policy were the families of those arrested and convicted of DUI who usually had nothing to do with the offense but were embarrassed and humiliated by their family member’s public exposure. One father, who managed a local restaurant frequented by teens, said his children’s friends didn’t say anything after his name appeared in the paper reporting his arrest on a DUI charge. However, after he pleaded guilty and his picture was published, his teenaged sons “got rode over pretty hard” by their friends who recognized their father’s picture. The man, who had a blood alcohol reading of .16 (twice the legal limit in Kentucky) when he was arrested, said, “I deserved everything I got (from the legal system). Thank goodness no one got hurt.” But he didn’t think the photos were fair or reduced the number of drunk drivers on county roads.

This case also raised questions about the relationship between a newspaper and public officials. Without the cooperation of an elected county jailer, The Anderson News would not have been able to publish the photos. The SPJ Code of Ethics admonishes journalists to act independently, but the policy and practice of The Anderson News would have been impossible without the cooperation of an elected official. The News was also dependent on the jailer for the accuracy of the photo identifications.

Author’s note: In May 2006, White retired as publisher and editor of The Anderson News. His replacement is General Manager Ben Carlson. In a column in August 2006, Carlson announced he would no longer publish the photos. He wrote that publishing mug shots of those convicted “adds a level of punishment, or at least embarrassment, beyond what is imposed by a judge.” In an interview, Carlson told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “I really don’t think that the role of a community newspaper is to punish or embarrass anybody. It’s to report the news and provide information.” Carlson told the Herald-Leader he had no negative response from county residents when he announced the change. The state director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving said she was disappointed by the decision to change the policy. In 2008, only 15 alcohol-related accidents — none of them resulting in fatalities — occurred in Anderson County. That was the lowest number in the 11 years since White first published the photos, but it came two years after the policy was dropped. In eight of the 11 years, Anderson County had no fatal accidents involving alcohol and only three alcohol-related highway deaths occurred during that time. In 2007, as in 2003 and 2001, no one died on the county’s highways.

— by Elizabeth K. Hansen, Eastern Kentucky University

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