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Port: The way the news media uses mugshots has to change

Every day we see crime stories and mugshots in the media. How often do we think about the human beings behind those stories? How often do we default to the prosecution's narrative in those stories?

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MINOT, N.D. — Adam Martin is the founder and CEO of the F5 Project , an organization that helps current and former inmates find their way back into society.

In a recent letter to the editor , Martin let journalists have it, arguing that the way we report crime is often exploitative. He made particular note of the use of police booking mugshots.

He has a point.

Allow me to illustrate it with an anecdote.

Last year a day care provider saw felony charges against her dropped for lack of evidence. Sarah Babinchak, 35 of Carpio, North Dakota, had been facing two charges, including Class B felony child abuse and Class B felony aggravated assault on a child under the age of 12, related to the injury of a child while in her care.

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After prosecutors spent more than a year of time and taxpayer money pursuing the felony charges, Babinchak ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor related to some minor code violations in her at-home day care.

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The prosecutors, meanwhile, were excoriated by District Court Judge Todd Cresap.

“So once again your office has put someone needlessly through the wringer,” he told Ward County Assistant State’s Attorney Tiffany Sorgen during a hearing in open court.

Why "once again"?

Per the Minot Daily News , in December of 2020, Todd Schwarz, the state's attorney who had been pursuing Babinchak's case, had to dismiss charges against a man who was accused of assaulting a hitchhiker because he got caught lying about turning over discovery evidence to the defense.

That man spent five months in prison, unable to make bond, before the charges were dropped.

Prior to that, Schwarz, who, according to the state Supreme Court website is currently working as a prosecutor in Mercer County, was fired as a prosecutor from McKenzie County for “gross misconduct and negligence."

But the Daily News article that reported these facts, that told us the story of a woman who lost her business and suffered more than a year of public humiliation for criminal charges that weren't supported by evidence, that reported the judge's blunt admonishment of the prosecutors, that revealed the serial bungling of one prosecutor and his previous termination, didn't lead with any of that information.

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Screenshot of a Minot Daily News article about the criminal charges against Sarah Babinchak
An Aug. 16, 2021, Minot Daily News article about the criminal charges against Carpio resident Sarah Babinchak headlined, "Former Carpio daycare provider pleads guilty to reduced charge."
Screenshot from MinotDailyNews.com, accessed January 17, 2022, at 8:04am central time

The headline over the August 2021 story was, "Former Carpio daycare provider pleads guilty to reduced charge."

It wasn't "Ward County prosecutors botch another case" or "Judge blasts prosecutors again."

The photo used under that headline?

It wasn't a photo of Schwarz, or Ward County State's Attorney Roza Larson, or even Judge Cresap.

It was Babinchak's mugshot .

This woman, who had already been needlessly dragged through the mud only to see the charges against her dropped, saw her vindication tempered by one final gut punch from journalists who thought the prosecution's consolation misdemeanor conviction was a bigger story than their pattern of incompetence.

Every day we see crime stories and mugshots in the media. How often do we think about the human beings behind those stories? How often do we default to the prosecution's narrative in those stories?

Martin argues that there are more sides to those stories.

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We ought to listen.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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