Photograph by The Voorhes

The news coverage of Columbine helped turn the tragedy into an international phenomenon.

Are journalists and media outlets still making the same mistakes 20 years later?

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Parkland, Florida; Santa Fe, Texas; Aztec, New Mexico; Roseburg, Oregon; Marysville, Washington; Santa Monica, California; Newtown, Connecticut—no matter where it happens, the news coverage of school shootings unfolds in almost exactly the same way every time. The first reports appear, often filled with inaccuracies, especially about the gunman (it’s almost always a man) and the number of victims. Then come the updated stories, which attempt to correct the information that was initially wrong. This is when we start to see reporters interviewing survivors or family members of those killed—sometimes accosting traumatized individuals while they’re still wearing bloodstained clothes. Next, we learn details about the perpetrator, and a list of the dead and injured circulates. There’s almost always a candlelight vigil of some sort. More interviews; politicians and community leaders offer thoughts and prayers. The president addresses the nation. Gun-control advocates plead for stronger gun laws. Gun-rights advocates remind us not to politicize the tragedy. Follow-up pieces investigate how the perpetrator acquired his weapons, what motivated him, and whether or not there were warning signs. A hero story emerges. We return to conversations about the need for more mental health resources. There are protests. The news cycle moves on; satellite trucks pack up and leave town, returning again, maybe, on the first, or fifth, or—as we’re doing now—20th anniversary.

It’s a script the media know and perform well. We should—we helped write it on April 20, 1999.

In the conversations that follow school shootings—at press time, there had been a handful this year—Columbine High School is almost always mentioned. That’s despite the fact that it wasn’t the nation’s first school shooting (most scholars point to the University of Texas in 1966), nor the first in modern history (there were at least six during the 1997-’98 school year), nor the deadliest (Virginia Tech, 2007). So why does Columbine continue to resonate in the American psyche? “Columbine was really the downbeat of this whole new symphony of gun violence and school violence,” says Syracuse University media studies professor Robert Thompson.

Just what made the attack on April 20, 1999, become known by a single word, “Columbine,” can’t be traced to a single note, though. There was the magnitude of the attack—not just the actual numbers of people killed (13, not including the shooters) and injured (24)—but also the intended casualty count. The Columbine perpetrators had rigged devices in and around the school, most of which failed to detonate, and their plan was to kill hundreds that day. The fact that the shooting wasn’t the act of a single person—the perpetrators were close friends—also sets Columbine apart. And in 1999, the internet was surging in popularity, allowing for the rapid spread of news and information.

Additionally, Columbine happened before 9/11, the day, Thompson says, the bar for watching real-time violence and tragedy in America was ratcheted up to previously unimaginable levels. But what is likely the most significant reason Columbine became lodged in America’s cultural consciousness as the archetype for school shootings was the media coverage. “It was essentially unprecedented in terms of seeing news unfolding in live time,” says Adam Lankford, a University of Alabama criminology professor and a leading researcher in media portrayals of mass shooters.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, a single live report aired more than three hours after the assault began at 12:55 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. But other than that, and a few radio interruptions alerting listeners about the attack, audiences had to wait until the evening for details from the prime-time news shows, which aired around 6 p.m. By then the bombing, which killed 2,403 people, had been over for hours. Jack Benny still did his regular comedy skit at 7 p.m.

Fast-forward 58 years to 1999, when three 24-hour cable news networks (CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) had recently emerged to give viewers access to round-the-clock coverage. The first television story about the shooting at Columbine was broadcast about half an hour after the first bullets were fired at 11:19 a.m. CNN shifted its attention away from the war in Kosovo and focused its coverage on a sprawling school building in suburban Denver.

Reporters descended on the campus. In Columbine, a 400-plus-page examination of the shooting, journalist Dave Cullen notes that the Denver Post alone had assigned 54 reporters to the story. Eventually some of them arrived at the triage areas and began getting firsthand accounts from witnesses. News stations were broadcasting calls from students still inside; in one particularly grim televised vignette, 17-year-old Patrick Ireland, who had been shot multiple times, dragged himself out of a second-story library window. Helicopter footage showed the bodies of students lying just beyond the school’s entrance.

Americans—and people around the world—watched it all, believing they were witnessing an ongoing massacre, when in fact the killing was over before most of the cameras arrived. And who could blame them? Information was slow to emerge, in part because law enforcement was methodically clearing the scene (although the shooters were dead by their own hands shortly after noon, it took another three hours for police to find them). The Rocky Mountain News published the first print story about the shooting at 3 p.m. that day—approximately 20 minutes before the discovery of the 10 murdered students in the library, Cullen reports in Columbine. “The Rocky’s nine-hundred-word summary of the massacre was an extraordinary piece of journalism: gripping, empathetic, and astonishingly accurate,” Cullen writes. “It nailed the details and the big picture: two ruthless killers picking off students indiscriminately. It was the first story published that spring to get the essence of the attack right—and one of the last.”

Journalists at Virginia Tech after the massacre there in 2007. Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The identities of the Columbine killers were not confirmed until the next morning, but the mythology around them began just a couple of hours into the ordeal. Some students who had escaped the school reported that the shooters were members of a group dubbed the Trench Coat Mafia who’d been bullied and who reportedly didn’t like athletes. Many reporters repeated these claims (although, notably, Cullen says the Rocky Mountain News largely did not). They were wrong.

In the days, weeks, and years that followed, much about the motivations and intentions of the two shooters was revealed to authorities. The press reported on that, too, but in many ways, the updated information came far too late. The narrative had been set, and even though the story continued to dominate headlines in the days after the attack, audience levels never hit what they were on that first day. More CNN viewers tuned in to watch the Columbine coverage on April 20, 1999, than the 1992 or 1996 presidential elections, the Rodney King verdict, or the deaths of Princess Diana or Mother Teresa, according to a 2002 study by then University of Colorado Boulder doctoral candidate Glenn Muschert. The characterization of the killers that was established in the early reports persisted, and for a large portion of the population, much of this misinformation is still part of the conventional wisdom today.

Lori Shontz, a former newspaper reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of Oregon and studies how to strengthen connections between journalists and the communities they cover, wonders how that might have been different if more journalists had asked sources, How do you know this? Shontz isn’t trying to play Monday morning quarterback 20 years later, but she is acknowledging that, in many ways, Columbine provided a window into how journalism works—and also exposed a flaw. When the first students arrived at Robert F. Clement Park with stories about shooters in trench coats, the press repeated them. When the first video and stills from the cafeteria cameras surfaced, the media reproduced them. “We were figuring out what happened, and we made everything bare. That’s what we do,” she says. “I just don’t think we as journalists really thought what that meant all the way through.”

What the headlines, the images, and the titillating storyline meant was that the Columbine shooters gained a kind of posthumous celebrity status that reflected a cultural shift in American society. “Columbine overlapped with a period when people were desperate for fame—even if it was for something bad,” Lankford says. This phenomenon was not entirely new: When a man killed four women and a toddler at a small Arizona college in November 1966, he reportedly noted that he did it because he wanted to be famous. He may have been influenced by the media attention the University of Texas killer received earlier that year or the notoriety given to a mass murderer who killed eight people in Chicago that summer. This effect is known as “media contagion”: when news coverage makes it easier for someone predisposed to certain actions, even criminal ones, to carry them out, sometimes even directly copying perpetrators they hold up as role models. As the internet, reality TV, cable news, social media, and a host of other platforms gained traction in the last decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, media contagion—specifically copycat crimes—escalated.

What we didn’t know in 1999 was that by fixating on the names and images and stories of the Columbine killers, we were, in fact, helping to birth new murderers: Since April 20, 1999, more than 40 perpetrators have directly cited Columbine as influencing their actions (see “Violent Lineage”). Collectively, they killed 210 people and injured at least 419.

Recent studies demonstrate that mass shooter media contagion is no longer just a theory; it’s an actuality, not unlike suicide media contagion. Academics have doggedly examined the subject, devoting entire issues of scholarly journals to the topic. Law enforcement, researchers, survivors, and family members of those killed have written open letters to the media, asking reporters and editors not to publish the names and images of gunmen or sensationalize their stories. Organizations like No Notoriety, founded by the parents of Alex Teves, who was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, have pleaded with the media to cease giving mass shooters the attention many of them seek.

Yet, the news media have been slow to respond: In 2007, NBC aired the Virginia Tech killer’s video manifesto a few days after receiving the recording he had mailed to the network during his shooting spree; CNN recently re-aired footage of the Columbine shooters inside the school on its series The Nineties; and a 2018 study found that publications still show more photos of perpetrators and play them larger than those of individual victims. (We are not blameless: As recently as 2013, 5280 included perpetrators’ names in large display copy online, long after the initial attack.)

Why hasn’t the news media adopted significant changes in its coverage? There is no simple answer. But complexity is a good place to start, especially given that the explanation for what motivates a mass shooter is usually complicated. “Some shooters are acting out their personal rage and anguish. Others are thinking globally or about going down in history,” says Pennsylvania-based Peter Langman, who is one of the country’s foremost experts in the psychology of school shooters. “But even when there is a so-called identifiable motive, it doesn’t usually tell you the whole story. So even for those who cite fame-seeking as part of their motivation, you have to wonder why that’s their method.” After all, he says, plenty of people desire fame. Some desperately. But they don’t all become mass shooters.

What we didn’t know in 1999 was that by fixating on the names and images and stories of the Columbine killers, we were, in fact, helping to birth new murderers.

The media often does a poor job of expressing these complications, Langman says. They’re difficult to unpack in a four-minute segment or a short news article. Langman acknowledges that longer, retrospective pieces do a better job of delving into the intricacies of a perpetrator’s motives, but in the immediate hours and days after a shooting, journalists often search for clear, one-note answers (bullying, video games, social circles, mental health issues). It’s a normal, human response: People crave explanations for why violent acts occur. “We find some comfort in finding some kind of motive for why it happened,” Syracuse’s Thompson says. “Until you figure out why it happened, you can’t control it from happening again.”

Beyond the reporting challenges involved in understanding a perpetrator’s motives, some newsrooms might be genuinely unaware of the media contagion effect. And those that are aware face a hyper-competitive environment in which they’re vying for readers or viewers or clicks and worry that if they don’t share the news, a competitor will and they’ll lose audience share. That premise assumes Americans want wall-to-wall coverage of the perpetrator, which Lankford questions. Consumption of a certain kind of story, like one that names the shooter or shows his picture or sensationalizes his actions, does not necessarily equal demand, he says. Lankford argues that more active efforts, like internet searches and Twitter interest, are better indications of actual demand. When measured this way, his research found that in the case of mass shooters, the media coverage (supply) generally outpaces demand.

There’s also the fact that not naming names or providing details about a shooter in many ways goes against journalistic craft. Any media outlet or journalism school worth its notebooks instills basic news values into its young hires and students, respectively, from day one. Among those tenets: impact, prominence, conflict, and timeliness. Mass shootings check all of those boxes. The shooters know this. The perpetrator of the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, articulated it: In a blog post one month before the attack, he noted that it seemed like the more people a perpetrator killed, the more that person was in the spotlight. Still, intentionally not covering mass murderers in depth feels wholly unnatural to journalists. And yet, Shontz points out, we regularly withhold “newsworthy” information from the public in other cases: sexual assaults and suicides, for example. In those cases, we “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm,” as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics tells us to do.

Journalists talk about those ethics a lot. We have courses devoted to them in undergraduate and graduate programs, along with classes in media law, copy editing, design, investigative reporting, and writing for digital mediums, but few course catalogs have a listing for “How To Cover A Mass Tragedy.” Instead, conversations about how to be sensitive to survivors, families, and when to release information (and how much) about perpetrators are typically left to colleagues and mentors in newsrooms.

Those conversations are evolving. Some well-known journalists, like Anderson Cooper and, locally, Kyle Clark, have publicly supported practices that reduce perpetrator visibility and minimize the use of shooters’ names and photos. Although none of the outlets we spoke with have a formal, written policy regarding how to cover a mass shooting (nor does 5280), they all said they talk about it—a lot. Everyone from Colorado Public Radio to the Denver Post to KDVR Fox31 to the Colorado Sun to the New York Times noted that each shooting is handled individually—and with a great deal of sensitivity. “We live in these communities, too,” Brian Gregory, news director at Fox31 and Colorado’s Own Channel 2, says, so empathy and respect are top of mind when weighing how to cover mass shootings. “You don’t just want to give reporters a handout,” Patty Calhoun, longtime editor of Westword, says. “That’s not going to help. It’s really case by case, but we’ve built up a long, long, long history on how to cover these events that seems appropriate. Our business isn’t just, Here’s what’s happened; we try to say why. And for that, you might have to go deeper.”

Doing so might mean releasing more information than groups like No Notoriety would like. But the fact that every outlet we spoke with was aware of the push to reduce perpetrator visibility demonstrates they’re thinking about it. That’s a start. Journalists today are asking the question. They’re pausing a moment before printing or going on-air with information. And in doing so, they may very well be changing the script.

A New Reporting Model

How researchers—and many advocacy groups—would like the media to cover mass shooters.

  1. Limit use of the perpetrator’s name to once in a story—never using it in prominent display copy like headlines, pull quotes, and captions. That’s just one of the media protocols disseminated by No Notoriety, an organization founded by the parents of Alex Teves, who was killed in the Aurora theater shooting. Also on the list: Refrain from broadcasting or publishing “self-serving statements, photos, videos and/or manifestos made by the individual.”
  2. Don’t simplify shooters’ motivations or speculate about them. Reporters should consult with experts about diagnoses or signs of mental health issues and ask questions about family life in addition to those about social relationships, says Peter Langman, an expert in the psychology of school shooters. When reporting breaking news, University of Oregon journalism professor Lori Shontz says journalists should ask sources how they know something before reporting what could be an inaccuracy.
  3. Don’t wait for an anniversary to check in with survivors and communities. Anniversaries provide a way to commemorate a tragedy, but “recovery and resilience don’t happen on a schedule,” Shontz says. “You don’t see much in the news media about the process of recovery and how complicated it is. Without staying in contact, we’re not showing it.”
  4. Consider providing journalists who cover mass tragedies with additional resources and training, such as those offered by Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma in New York City or the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. And, of course, ensure staffers have mental health resources available to them as they cover violent tragedies and distressing events.

This story is part of 5280 Magazine’s special issue dedicated to the 20th anniversary of Columbine. Read more about the project here.


NEXT: Violent Lineage. Media contagion and Columbine.