The suspect in the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park is already famous, and we suspect that’s what he wanted. It happened in minutes.
It’s a cycle seen in mass shootings over years and decades. The tragedy happens, people ask who did it, a suspect is found, a mug shot spreads across the world and people start looking into the background of the suspect. Maybe a manifesto is found, or a video or set of videos the suspect made, or artwork. And that material spreads around the world, too. That’s where more danger arises.
Columbia Journalism Review has reported that a 2015 study by a group of Arizona State University researchers found that after a mass shooting, the probability of another such attack increased for the next 13 days.
Based on the research the Review cited, the “contagion theory” is that “the more mass shootings there are, and the more attention they get, the more troubled people think that shooting a great number of random people is a normal thing that a troubled person does.” Furthermore, fame appears to be attractive. A number of mass shooters said in messages they left that they sought fame and widespread news coverage, the Review reported, citing criminologists. “There is a statistical relationship between fame-seeking and the number of victims killed,” said Adam Lankford, a University of Alabama professor who studies mass shootings. That has led to calls among experts, media and even law enforcement to greatly reduce naming shooting suspects.
In the Highland Park case, law enforcement did give the “person of interest” instant fame by putting out a “wanted” poster, while he was on the loose. It’s a tough position to be in; they needed help in apprehending him and wanted to warn the public - and it turns out it was a member of the public who spotted his vehicle in North Chicago and called 911, leading to his capture. The limited use of his identity makes sense, if only so someone else is not wrongly accused in the public mind.
Meanwhile, a shooter’s background naturally becomes a subject of sincere public interest: What warning signs were out there? Could he have been stopped? All valid questions; we asked them, too, and provided some description of the Highland Park suspect’s work that seems to portend what happened, as well as of the weapons he acquired.
But there’s a difference between giving some basic descriptions and putting the work on display - on social media, on television and computer screens and on printed pages. We believe we should be circumspect and cautious about what we show others when horrible things happen. We should be careful about how we describe a suspect’s mindset. We must avoid providing details that could be used as “instructions” for some other individual bent on harming others to get attention. We can’t stop people from publishing material on social media or elsewhere, but we don’t have to keep reproducing it ourselves.
The Highland Park shooting is yet another case that shows systemic problems that need to be solved; we can discuss them without encouraging more shooters. The Highland Park case and all the others are horrific stories of wide public interest, so naturally we must report on them.
At the same time, we must keep in mind how we report on them, a guideline all people should consider whether they represent a traditional broadcast or print news outlet or are simply joining a conversation on social media.
The Daily Herald