After College Football Player’s Arrest, Student Newspaper Debates Publishing His Mugshot

Marijuana. A semi-automatic weapon. A college football player. Cops. Pending charges. Even the scantest details related to the recent arrest of El Camino College defensive back Taj Mathis scream front-page story. But should the story include Mathis’ mugshot?

While reporting last month on the Mathis saga, El Camino College Union news editor Jessica Martinez grappled with that question — one that to her embodied journalism’s larger morality play pitting public good versus a private person’s pain, transparency versus sensationalism and our need to know versus the responsibility of restraint.

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As ECC journalism instructor and Union faculty adviser Kate McLaughlin shared on a popular college media advisers’ list-serv:

“[On] October 10, a prominent football player was arrested for possession of firearms on campus. Four footballers were in a car smoking (or preparing to smoke) pot. Cops rousted them, finding two guns (and a bag of random bullets/shells) in the trunk; the semi-automatic was loaded; the other gun was not. Neither firearm was registered, and [Mathis] had no license to carry. He’s being charged with a felony and is likely being booted from school and hence the team. … He had half a semester left before finishing here. He grew up in a really rough part of town. … He is, er, was, being looked at by many universities. He’s a really good athlete. His world is collapsing because of this extremely stupid maneuver.”

3Initially, Martinez and her fellow reporter on the story, sports editor Matthew Simon, maneuvered simply to get the scoop — despite, as McLaughlin shared, “stonewalling from every office and person on campus, including the cops.”

Among the details Martinez and Simon sought: the Mathis mugshot, which they planned to publish with the story, front page, above the fold.

I was initially really excited to finally have my hands on the mugshot,” said Martinez. “I told my colleagues in the newsroom at the time I got the email from our college’s police chief that I would dance to the station to pick it up.”

But as deadline loomed and the design for page one took shape, this mugshot two-step hit a snag and second thoughts emerged.

Once more, adviser McLaughlin: “The night before production day, the front page was laid out and looking good. The story with the mugshot led the paper. Later that evening, I got a text from [Martinez] saying she felt weird about running the mug on the front page. She didn’t know if it was right or not, but her gut was telling her it might be exploitative. They were excited over getting the mug and giving the story big play, but now she was thinking twice. She felt running the mug big on page one might be pandering to schadenfreude or leaning toward tabloidy with the ever-popular ‘celebrity’ mugshot.”

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In the Q&A below, Martinez explains and defends her decision to withhold the Mathis mugshot from the final story package. The ethical values embedded in her answers: You don’t need to publish something just because you have it. Humanity can trump transparency without sacrificing good journalism. And it can be advantageous to make time for second thoughts, even while on deadline.

What stirred your doubts about running the mugshot?

To get the mugshot, I had made many calls and visits to our college’s police station, to our city’s police station and to the county sheriff department. I was redirected for a long time. As soon as we were able to get it, we put it on the front page and I didn’t think anything of it. That evening, I really thought about it and didn’t know if it was right. It seemed almost cheap to me. We were going to put this guy’s face out there for our college of 23,000 students plus faculty and staff to see and I didn’t know what the point of it was. We weren’t going to get much out of it. I made a list of reasons to run it and reasons not to and the latter outweighed the former.

To be clear, what was the final decision? And how do you feel about it now?

Other editors had been told or heard of our dilemma on production morning. Around noon, we all sat down for a meeting together. We talked about running it on page one, page two or not at all and decided not to run the mugshot at all. We all acknowledged there could be arguments made for every choice. But, at the end of the day, this young adult has a future. We didn’t believe we should be the ones that needed to put his face out there. It doesn’t matter what he looks like. The paper’s out now and I believe we made the right decision. The story is still our top story [as of late last week] and I don’t think the impact of the story has changed significantly. Mugshot or not, it’s a big story and it’s one people will want to read.

A counterargument: The player’s arrest is legitimate news and people would have an interest in what he looks like. What’s your take on that opinion?

I’ve already received a couple questions from a number of people asking why we didn’t run the mugshot. I don’t think it matters what he looks like. If a reader wanted to know what he looked like, they could use Google to find that out instantly. The story really is the core of what we’re talking about. What happened is news. What he looks like isn’t. Another factor that went into our final decision was that he’s not a wanted person. He was arrested right away. If students needed to be on the lookout for him, our decision may have been different.

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From your perspective, when might it be OK to publish a person’s mugshot?

I think had someone been injured or harmed by the firearms, our decision might have been different. But the guns were in the trunk of a car and were never used. Part of our decision not to run the mugshot was that he’s not a wanted guy. We briefly even put out the idea of putting a photo of him playing instead, but decided that was probably even more inappropriate. If a person isn’t wanted or people shouldn’t be on the lookout for him, the mugshot doesn’t need to be printed. It seems mugshots are usually printed to satisfy curiosity. And, again, if people are curious, they can find out what he looks like some other way, but they won’t find out from us.

One additional counterargument, in the form of a question: Isn’t a story fit for the front page worthy of a full set of details, facts and images? 

The story was worthy of the front page because it was a matter of public safety. We didn’t want to print the mugshot simply because we could. We wanted to have a good reason behind it and the reasons not to print it outweighed the reasons to do it. We included his full name because it is news and because we want our campus to be as safe as possible. If we had just said it was a football player and never reported his name, who’s to say it wasn’t the guy a student hangs out with every day or sits next to in a math class? That wouldn’t be right by us. … I’ve been in the presence of many people as they read our story for the first time and haven’t heard once a question as to why we included certain information and why we didn’t include other information. As an editorial board, we reported what we thought students, faculty, staff and those in our community should know.

How did the paper’s relationship with the school, police and athletic program factor into your decision?

I don’t think the ultimate deciding factor on running the mugshot or not was what the college, athletic program and police department would think, but it was definitely something we considered. I’m sure people from the college, athletic program and police department could make arguments for both sides. We’re not a trashy newspaper and we’re well-known. We have a reputation to uphold and that’s something we also considered.

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Comments
2 Responses to “After College Football Player’s Arrest, Student Newspaper Debates Publishing His Mugshot”
  1. Don says:

    A student who breaks the rules is no different than a member of society who breaks the rules.

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