Policy Corner: How quickly we identify a crime suspect first called 'a person of interest'

When police and the FBI put out a call for "a person of interest" in the Highland Park July 4 parade shooting, we had a decision to make quickly.

They identified him by name, issued a photo and gave his physical characteristics, as well as particulars about the car he was driving including the license plate number. The name and photo were sticking points for us.

The Daily Herald has a policy of not identifying people who may be implicated in a crime but who are not charged, or who are not about to be charged, or for whom a warrant for their arrest has not been issued. The policy stems from the fear a person would be mistakenly implicated in a crime and forever tainted even by the incorrect accusation.

The policy draws on the famous case of Richard Jewell, the security guard who provided a tip on the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing in Atlanta but whom the FBI soon wrongly considered a suspect in the bombing. He was cleared within a few months, and another person confessed to the crime, but Jewell's life was forever tainted.

Also, we have learned over the years that "a person of interest" could mean a variety of things, not always a prime suspect.

In the case of the Highland Park shooting, we decided not to publish his name for more than a day. In doing so, we were spitting into the wind. Within minutes of his name being announced, it spread through media and social media around the world. A "Wanted" poster issued by the FBI added pressure.

But we held fast. We can't take the name back if we turn out to be wrong, we think.

Then, he was apprehended - but not yet charged. We still didn't publish his name. Interestingly, we saw some other media hold back at least a little on naming him as we all awaited word on charges - to make sure he was indeed the real suspect.

Finally, authorities announced charges would be coming. A few hours before they were announced, we did finally publish the man's name.

Even among ourselves we don't always agree on when to publish an identity, especially when everyone else is doing it. But in the end, we believe in the media's duty to behave responsibly and in the "innocent until proven guilty" mantra of our legal system.

Now, we will continue to rarely, if at all, identify the suspect in keeping with a separate policy adopted so we don't glorify the person or inadvertently encourage others to commit such crimes. As a rule, we strictly limit the use of the picture of a mass shooting suspect, and we identify individuals by name only when necessary and even then only once in a story.

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