“Mugs in the News” is one of the biggest viewer magnets on the Chicago Tribune website, and I offer it this spoonful of praise: doing what it does, it could do it a lot more offensively.

“Is this journalism? Voyeurism?” wondered the Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers in early 2009, writing about the mug shot phenomenon soon after major initiatives were launched by the Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times. It’s an old question that comes up whenever a news medium turns kinky—lately I’ve seen it asked about WikiLeaks. The best answer is to turn the question around: “Why do you propose them as opposites when journalism is frequently both?”

Now concluding its second year at chicagotribune.com, “Mugs in the News” is a choice example of journalistic voyeurism. “Mug Shots,” the Times‘s entry at tampabay.com, is something less.

At 9:38 on December 10, a 23-year-old woman in the Tampa Bay area was arrested and charged with driving on an invalid license. She posted bond of $250, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office sent her on her way, and a couple hours later I composed a Facebook message asking for her thoughts on the experience. Not about her brush with the law—I could easily imagine her kicking herself for failing to get down to the DMV before her birthday, December 2, which may not be what happened but easily could have been.

But did she know her mug shot and arrest report had already been posted online for the world to see? It happens automatically. When the four sheriffs’ departments in the Tampa region put mug shots on their own websites, voila, they show up at tampabay.com. It happens to anyone arrested for any reason, even a reason as petty as driving on a license that expired eight days ago.

“Mug Shots” is a such a high-profile public service (so to speak) that a local defense attorney told CNN a year and a half ago that a lot of arrested people smile for the camera because they know their mug shot is going on the Internet. But this young unlicensed driver wasn’t smiling. And she didn’t get back to the reporter from the big city up north offering to write up her little drama. (I’m assuming I was Facebooking the same person, not a sure thing despite the strong resemblance of the mug shot and Facebook picture.) It didn’t matter. Even without the benefit of her testimony, after a few long seconds of reflection I was able to come to a conclusion: “Mug Shots” is reprehensible.

The Tribune’s “Mugs in the News” is definitely less reprehensible.

The cops in Chicago don’t put mug shots online, so reporters have to go get them, explains Bill Adee, the Tribune‘s vice president of digital development. And because “the data didn’t come in that nice and neatly,” the Tribune confronted the sort of questions that tend not to get asked when no effort’s required. Like: What are we doing? And: Why are we doing it?

The niggling detail that transcends all other niggling details is this: everyone whose mug shot is taken is a suspect presumed innocent. Some will actually turn out to be innocent; others, innocent or not, will see their charges knocked down or dismissed entirely.

It’s been dealt with pretty much the same in Chicago, Tampa Bay, and everywhere else mug shots are paraded. There’s charming boilerplate on the sites of the various sheriffs departments around Tampa Bay that offers the constabulary’s perspective on these possibilities: “An acquittal or dismissal of a criminal charge does not necessarily negate the validity of an arrest.” Newspapers like the Tribune and Times tend to cover their butts with a little more finesse. “Mugs in the News” tells viewers, “Arrest does not imply guilt, and criminal charges are merely accusations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty and convicted.”

Not content to simply remind the public of this first principle of jurisprudence, chicagotribune.com has set standards tampabay.com lacks. “We have a mug shot and a caption and we link a story to that caption,” says Adee. “That really sets the bar. We use mug shots where there are stories to set the context.”

If the story had to have run in the Tribune, that would be a high bar indeed, and “Mugs in the News” would be limited to high-profile miscreants such as “Mugs” Hall of Famer Rod Blagojevich and various murder suspects. But “Mugs” leans heavily on TribLocal, the Tribune‘s string of suburban websites, which describes itself as a “unique mix of professional and user-generated content.” Out in the burbs it’s never been necessary to kill someone to get some ink. And so as we click through “Mugs in the News” we find ourselves introduced to (alleged) child beaters from Rosemont, (alleged) panderers from Berkeley, and (alleged) burglars from Wilmette.

“We try to get different kinds of crimes,” says Adee, “and we try to get a variety of city and suburban.” “Mugs in the News” samples the local criminal element, choosing mugs with the same careful regard for the overall effect as a florist assembling a bouquet. Don’t expect the next Deerfield teen with a DUI to show up on chicagotribune.com.

Like the Times, the Tribune is constantly culling the herd—its mug shots stay online about six to eight weeks. “So they’re not in that gallery forever,” Adee says. “And if charges are dropped, we drop the mug shot.”

I have to wonder at this. Reporters have too much to do to keep a close eye on yesterday’s police blotter. When deals get struck and charges get dropped, news releases don’t often get issued.

“We try to stay on it,” Adee insists. “When charges were dropped against Drew Peterson, we took his mug shot out of the gallery.”

The upshot of the Tribune‘s various prudent measures is the city’s best geek show. Nobody takes a good mug shot: “It’s certainly not that person’s finest moment,” Adee allows. And because the Tribune is particular about who it allows in its rogues’ gallery, taken as a whole it’s a haunting procession. “Mugs in the News” is one of the most popular features on the Tribune‘s website, says Adee, and no wonder. You can’t tear your eyes from the stone-cold stares of the (alleged) killers, the bewildered or belligerent gazes of the (alleged) drunks, the (alleged) prostitutes’ prim or soul-dead poses. Their original sin, you can tell at a glance, was to be born a fuckup. Every last one of them deserves to be presumed innocent—but not by the cops who herd them in, not by the Tribune when it puts their doleful countenances on display, and not by us.

We click through these mugs and the strategic contours of our own lives suddenly become clear. Here is why we stayed in school, kissed off drugs, got a mortgage in a boring neighborhood. The whole point of all that striving was to construct an existence impermeable by theirs. The way they stare back is enough to give any god-fearing adult the willies, but if it’s safe to check them out anyplace, the place is probably chicagotribune.com. Better the zoo than the jungle.

How many of these mopes ever know we’re looking?

The competition has to keep up. For the last year suntimes.com has offered its own “Mug Shots in the News.” It’s the usual array of names, charges, and faces—a lot of them the same ones the Tribune posts, but with no news stories to prop up the argument that there’s nothing to be seen here but newsmakers. “I don’t want to get into the philosophy of what we’re doing,” says editor Don Hayner, “but a lot of public records we’re putting up.”  

But even though there’s probably nothing fundamentally different between your property tax assessment and the look on your face when you’re marched into the station, I’d like to pretend that there is.