Jessica Miller: Why you won’t see mug shots on The Tribune’s pages

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Miller has been a criminal justice reporter at The Tribune for 10 years. She helped form the news organization’s mugshot policy.

Editor’s note: Jessica Miller has been a criminal justice reporter at The Tribune for 10 years. She helped form the news organization’s mug shot policy.

The tragic, violent death of University of Utah football player Aaron Lowe has resonated with so many people in our community. It’s also garnered national headlines like few other recent, local shootings.

My colleagues at The Salt Lake Tribune have worked diligently to provide readers with a deep understanding of what happened that night, highlighting how police staffing troubles meant delayed responses to multiple noise complaints prior to the shooting. They’ve also reported on heartbreaking stories of how Lowe’s death has affected his team, and how they’re learning to go on from here, both on and off the football field.

And they’ve reported about the arrest of the man who police say pulled the trigger, a 22-year-old named Buk Mawut Buk.

But absent from all this coverage is an image that has historically been a staple in criminal justice reporting. You have never seen Buk’s booking photo on The Tribune’s website or in our pages. And that’s intentional.

The Tribune adopted a policy earlier this year that it will no longer use mug shots in our coverage before someone has been convicted of a crime. The policy is consistent with a new state law that bars law enforcement agencies from releasing booking photos pre-conviction.

But I believe it’s also the right thing to do, especially as journalists consider our role in society. Simple decisions, like using a photo or not, can have a profound impact on someone’s life.

In this case, it has affected someone’s life. A man who had nothing to do with Lowe’s killing was implicated simply because of his name.

On Sunday, after news broke that police had arrested a suspect in Lowe’s killing, some media outlets started publishing an old mug shot of Buk Buk — just as many news organizations have done for decades.

But the problem was, some of the photos published were not of the 22-year-old Buk Mawut Buk, who remains behind bars. The booking photo circulated instead depicted another Utah man, also named Buk Buk. He is a few years older and most definitely not the man who police arrested on suspicion of killing Lowe.

Two days later, Salt Lake City police sent an email to reporters asking them to stop using the image of 26-year-old Buk, noting that he has received threats as a result.

No journalist wants to make a mistake like that.

I have been a criminal justice reporter in Utah for 12 years. Early in my career, I worked in another newsroom that posted mug shot slideshows daily, which served little purpose besides attracting clicks. I’ve also requested and published hundreds of mug shots during the decade I’ve worked for The Tribune.

I’m glad we rethought that policy.

It means you won’t be seeing mug shots on sltrib.com, for the most part. But like all policies, there are exceptions: If police are searching for someone believed to be dangerous, we will publish their photo until they are found. And we may use a booking photo of someone who has been convicted, as we did in a recent story about the men who died of COVID-19 in Utah’s prisons.

Today, our audience primarily reads our articles online. And online is forever — those mug shots that we published last year, or five years ago, or 10 years ago still live on the internet.

Nearly all of the people in those photographs had not been convicted when the newspaper published their booking photos, though some readers may have thought so based on the images alone. Many of those photographed later pleaded guilty, but some were innocent.

That’s why earlier this year we started a fresh start initiative, where we will consider removing mug shots or names that have previously appeared in our reporting. If you’ve seen your booking photo in our pages, we want to hear from you. A request form is available at sltrib.com/redactionrequest. You can also email us at removalrequest@sltrib.com.

We still believe what we wrote in March when announcing this initiative: “Just as people deserve a fresh start, we too must evaluate and redefine our role and the impact we have in communities we serve.”