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updated: 1/19/2012 12:54 PM

Talk with the Editor: Does beating video encourage more beatings?

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We made a conscious decision Wednesday against linking to the video of a lengthy beating in Chicago of a 17-year-old by a group of teens, and I'd like your opinion on it.

This is one of those issues you grapple with as an editor, and I have to say, usually you don't look back. Usually, no matter how much hand-wringing and debate was involved, you're confident in the decision once it's been reached. But sometimes, and I'd count this as one of those times, you're never quite sure. Sometimes an issue doesn't seem to have an undeniably right or wrong answer, just your best judgment.

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In this case, the story involves a group of seven teenagers, including one from the suburbs, who have been charged with beating and robbing an apparently defenseless fellow teen in an attack that included some possibly racial overtones. Somebody shot video of the assault, in what seems to be a growing trend for this kind of thing, and posted it on the Internet.

Everybody scratches their heads about why people would shoot incriminating videos of themselves committing a crime, but some young people do. And while it would be overstating it to say the phenomenon is running rampant, it is accurate to acknowledge at least that there is a phenomenon.

You have to suspect that at least part of the reason is the ego gratification of showing off what they've done, that they almost felt the assault wasn't worth doing if they couldn't also share it with everybody else.

Years ago, we developed an in-depth report on street gang activity in the suburbs, and in the course of that report, we talked to several gang experts who all told us something that never occurred to us before: That gang members read the newspapers and watch the news and that news reports that mention the street gang by name reinforce their crimes. The rush of seeing the gang's name in the paper was part of the rush of committing the crime.

We've had a policy since then against using the names of street gangs except in very narrow and very rare circumstances.

This case doesn't involve a street gang as far as we know, but we wondered whether the rush of seeing themselves in the video was part of the assailants' rush of administering the beating. And could it, in a way, encourage others to mimic the video in an effort to get the same rush?

By that I don't mean that everybody in every suburban high school would suddenly be tempted to go beat somebody up. In fact, one of the reasons for my second-guessing is there's evidence that the video in some ways has had the reverse effect, that it's gotten a lot of young people riled up to oppose violence.

But we worried about the troubled kids, or kids with identity issues, or kids in with the wrong crowds and whether they might see this as somehow cool.

And we also questioned whether you have to see the beating to understand that a beating took place.

The reality is, the video is out there whether we link to it or not, in easy-to-find places that kids visit a lot more than they visit the local newspaper website. To say we're going to stand apart from that, well, you wonder whether you're just kidding yourself. With the way the Internet age is, it feels a little like trying to block a tsunami by raising your hands against the water.

But right is right whether everybody's bought into it or you're going it alone. The question is, were we right? You tell me.

(We encourage you to talk with the editor by clicking on the Comments widget and providing your response to today's column. We want a provocative discussion but one that also abides by general rules of civility ... Please also consider friending John on Facebook by searching John Lampinen Daily Herald and following him on Twitter @DHJohnLampinen)

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