Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Publishing Drunken Driver Photos as Weekly Feature

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Publishing Drunken Driver Photos as Weekly Feature

Article excerpt

Because police mug shots are public records, a small Kentucky newspaper decided to regularly print those of convicted drunken drivers. The community appears to love it.

IN WHAT IS believed to be the first such regular feature of its kind in a U.S newspaper, a rural Kentucky weekly is publishing the jailhouse mug shots of people convicted of driving while intoxicated.

The Anderson News, a 6,000-circulation weekly in Lawrenceburg, Ky., started running the photos in early February in a section of the newspaper called "Public Records," which includes reports of all misdemeanor, felony and small claims judgments in the local district court. Juvenile court proceedings are not included. The publication is owned by Landmark Communications Inc., of Norfolk, Va.

So far, roughly 60 pictures of drunken drivers have appeared. Initially, they were run monthly. Recently, they began appearing weekly

The 1-column-by-3-inch black-and-white photographs include the name of the individual, booking date and time, blood alcohol level and the date of conviction.

The photos are provided by the Franklin County Regional Jail.

Police mug shots are public records. In 1997, 183 people were convicted of drunken driving in Anderson County. Many newspapers around the country run the text details of drunken driving convictions, but the Anderson News is believed to be the first to routinely include the photos taken at the time of arrest.

The project is the brainchild of Don White, the publisher of the newspaper, who wrote a column last December announcing his intention and reasoning for running the photographs.

"Most violators of the law dislike having their names in the local paper. We hope the certainty that their picture will also be published will keep more drunks off our highways... We are encouraging the publishers of all small-town newspapers in America to adopt a policy similar to that of the Anderson News," wrote White.

In an interview, he emphasized the project is not against drinking, just drinking and driving. "I like a cold Budweiser myself. But I'm not going to drink to excess and get in the car. If I do I'm stupid and I deserve to be on the front page, which I will be," said White.

He said there has been no legal action taken against the paper for publishing the drunken driver photos. The only criticism has been that the photos are an additional punishment and may stigmatize the individuals.

"When a guy drives drunk he loses a bunch of rights," said White. "We all got a right to have a car, have a license, as long as our eyesight is OK and we pass the test, but we damn well don't have a right to drink and drive. That's my point," said White.

Paula Freeman, acting head of the state Mothers Against Drunk Driving office, endorses the project.

"We encouraged him to go ahead with it. There were questions - he went to the attorney general to find out if there were any violation-of-privacy concerns. It's not a violation of the law. We talked to some of the people in the community and they like the idea. I think the community in general is pleased and supportive," said Freeman.

The News runs only photographs of someone who is either convicted, pleads guilty or has exhausted the appeals process.

Before embarking on the project, White checked with Jon Fleischaker, an attorney who runs the Kentucky Press Association's libel hot line.

Fleischaker said that since newspapers publish the identities of people all the time, that running the photographs in this instance just adds to that identification process.

"You just have to make sure the picture is accurate - that it's the picture of the right guy. This is public information. I really don't think it adds anything legally to publish the picture along with the name of the person. It clearly adds something viscerally or emotionally, but that's a journalistic decision," said Fleischaker. …

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