Illustration by Arnel Reynon
We all know that crime pays — in news coverage. Mugshots and arrest records are publicly available, and papers all over the country publish them. So the idea of Gotcha! and other mugshot publications, which take this a step further by aggregating the pictures, names and criminal charges, in an unpleasant but inevitable part of the current media landscape.
My problem with Gotcha! is with its execution and the anonymity of the people behind the publication.
Gotcha! was started in 2010, and it has a weekly circulation between 9,000 and 10,000, according to Rick Thornton, vice president of audience and content development at Richmond Media Group, an umbrella organization that includes the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond.com and local weeklies, including Gotcha!
He answered my questions one evening in October, but there's one answer that I didn't get: the name of the editor, which Thornton declined to divulge.
"He is a trained editor, he's a journalist," Thornton said. "He understands the sensitive nature of the material. … He's one of the most serious people in this building."
Although I don't know much else about the editor of Gotcha!, which is produced through Richmond Media Group's specialty publications department and not the T-D newsroom, Thornton said that the editor approached the paper about editing the publication in 2011. I asked Thornton to provide the name of the previous editor but didn't receive a response.
I also asked why the editor's name isn't on a masthead in the paper or online, or even among the names of award winners listed on the Virginia Press Association website. (In the 2011 advertising contest, Gotcha! won first place for niche publications.)
Thornton, who entered journalism more than two decades ago as a news reporter in Maryland, said: "Put yourself in that person's shoes. It's a sensitive job to be in. Anybody who calls or emails, he sees that. Given the sometimes sensitive situation that product [Gotcha!] is in, we have not released his name in print."
However, crime reporters' bylines appear next to their work in newspapers everywhere, including the T-D.
I asked Thornton if there is a protocol for cases when a charge Gotcha! reports is dropped. "Right now, if you are arrested and charged with a crime, you are published," Thornton said. Police departments have gotten very efficient at sending out mugshots and press releases within hours of an arrest, but they aren't as good at notifying the media when charges are dropped, or when there's a conviction or acquittal, which — to be fair — falls to the courts instead of the police.
"We absolutely understand that," Thornton said, and he added that Gotcha! plans to "provide a fuller picture" in the future by printing convictions. "We do hold ourselves to a pretty high standard," but like other media outlets, Gotcha! doesn't always follow up on the original arrest report, he said.
This leads to another problem: Some arrests are not for serious crimes. In a recent issue, one man was charged with using public utilities without payment. Someone else was charged with possessing stolen property. I asked Thornton if there were any arrests that are considered too minor to report; newspapers often draw the line at misdemeanors unless a public figure has broken the law.
"There really isn't a line," he said. "The editor isn't passing judgment on the seriousness of charges." Earlier, Thornton explained, "If you are arrested, you will show up in that publication. It takes the news judgment out of it."
Then what is the value of Gotcha!? Why hire an editor at all, if he's not going to use his training as a journalist to exercise judgment?
There is one area in which the editor uses his editorial judgment, according to Thornton: the covers. "He is making a judgment call as to what crime story in the region has the most impact. We have evolved that product."
I asked about a July cover that featured a man's enlarged mugshot with the title "Bad Dad!" after he was arrested in Chesterfield following a standoff with police while his 1-year-old son was in the house. He wound up being convicted of assault and battery, but no offenses regarding his fitness as a father.
Thornton wouldn't speak to the decision to publish this cover because he wasn't involved, but he said: "I'm not going to pass judgment on that. We [as journalists] put ourselves out there every day. Do we put a string of words out there that weren't the best choice? I'm not saying this is one of them."
Finally, a third concern: Gotcha!'s online component, which is set to grow to a full local crime website in 2013, according to Thornton. Currently, the Times-Dispatch website has a section — designated in the Web address as part of Gotcha!, although not on the page itself — that publishes mugshots weekly, although like the print version of Gotcha!, they are not updated with post-arrest information.
These pictures are supposed to remain online for only eight to 10 weeks, Thornton said. "There are archived lists there, but we do not leave those photographs up forever and ever."
That's when I mentioned that a colleague here was searching Google for a contact number for someone she wished to interview. High on this person's search-engine results was a misdemeanor arrest back in April, with a link to TimesDispatch.com. To Thornton's credit, he took down the information I gave him about this person so he could look into the matter. But the photo was still online on Nov. 20.
I am not trying to jump all over the Times-Dispatch or Richmond Media Group for trying to survive in this economy, and I'm fully aware that someone else would have started a publication like Gotcha! here if they hadn't.
I also don't want to set aside the fact that photos of "most wanted" fugitives assist the police by getting the public involved. Since 2010, 45 wanted people whose pictures were published in Gotcha! have been arrested, Thornton said. The publication also brings in new, younger readers who traditionally haven't paid much attention to newspapers, which is a good thing for media companies' financial health.
But the stakes are too high, with too many people's reputations on the line, to ignore the problems — especially with online expansion right around the corner.
Gotcha! needs a straightforward, published policy about handling corrections and clarifications, as well as a commitment to prominently publishing the names of people pictured in earlier issues who were not convicted or whose charges were dropped. If the editor of Gotcha! is so worried about reprisals that he remains anonymous, then Richmond Media Group should name someone to take complaints, like an ombudsman.
Gotcha! is at the nexus of two circumstances: the news industry's financial problems and the American public's lurid fascination with crime. It's natural that mugshot publications will sell, but the companies who publish them need to be cautious that people's lives aren't ruined in the process.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.