“Ad”mission of guilt

Court-ordered ads raise ethical questions

Should newspapers help courts punish offenders by accepting so-called “apology ads”?

By Julie Kredens, staff writer

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Spend time in jail or on the pages of the local newspaper. A Pensacola, Florida, judge offers that option to those convicted of DUI and other misdemeanors such as shoplifting or soliciting prostitutes.

Since January, at least six people have chosen to place a two-inch ad in The Gulf Breeze Sentinel. The ad contains their name, photograph, and a statement: “I pled no contest/guilty to . . .” The statement is completed with the type of offense.

Escambia County Judge William P. White, Jr. believes the ads act as a deterrent, and points to a drop in DUI arrests since the first ad appeared in the Sentinel. But effective or not, is it appropriate for newspapers to accept such ads?

The Pensacola News Journal says “no” and, when asked to run them, refused. An editorial explained that the newspaper didn’t want to be “a vehicle for court-ordered public humiliation.” 

Sentinel editor Duane B. Cook, whose paper has been publishing the ads, says he isn’t concerned about the “public humiliation” aspect because the same information appears regularly in newspaper police logs and court records sections. “In many cases they’re not even convicted,” says Cook, “And yet the stigma is left from having been in the arrest report.”

Using ads as punishment is not a new idea; so-called “guilt” or “apology ads” have been popping up in papers around the country for several years.

In 1989, The Providence (RI) Journal-Bulletin carried an ad by a convicted child molester who never served any jail time for his offense. The judge ordered that he place the ad as a condition of probation.

The Vero Beach (FL) Press-Journal has been running DUI conviction ads for about three years. But the paper runs only DUI ads because their county judge hands down the ad punishment only in those cases.

Press-Journal general manager Darryl Hicks considers running the DUI ads a “service” to the community because it points up the problem of drunken driving. But Hicks said he probably wouldn’t run ads for convictions on shoplifting or soliciting for prostitution.

As the courts continue to develop alternative sentences, Judge White thinks more papers will have to deal with the issue both as a news judgment and possibly on a legal front. White says he would not rule out issuing an order to the News Journal to show cause why the paper shouldn’t be held in contempt for refusing the ads.

Not yet faced with that challenge, News Journal publisher Denise Bannister maintains, “We are not changing our position.”