Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Daily Blog Series, Part I.

April 14, 2010 at 2:49 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

Some Columbine victims families passed the ten-year by returning to the school and walking through the nearby memorial in Clement Park. The memorial was not cleared for the parents, and they quietly mingled with the reporters and general public who had arrived on April 20, 2009 to honor the anniversary. Most people and reporters buzzing the area that day did not recognize the victims families. Just as they did not recognize the story of Columbine.
Columbine has always been a very difficult story to untangle, even for those dedicated to covering it. Authorities – namely the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office – routinely withheld information but were then often forced to parcel it out, generally after lawsuits. The Columbine story dribbled out piece by piece, year by year. Each round of new information often changed the story as we knew it. Only a select number of reporters developed an expertise. The events of Columbine also defy easy explanation – it was not simply the parents, or gun control, or bullying.
Yet school shootings and other mass shootings are one of America’s most high-profile social issues. Like plane crashes, they are rare but highly dramatic events. Mass shootings hit schools, malls and health clubs – where people think they are safest. And Columbine remains the world’s most iconic school shooting. So with good reason, a phalanx of international media revisited the ten-year anniversary. It seems safe to say that media coverage of the ten-year anniversary was rivaled only by coverage of the shootings themselves.
A decade later, the media had a truckload of facts at its disposal to burrow into why Columbine seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 others before taking their own lives. Over 26,000 pages of police documents had been released, lawsuit files were the size of telephone books, and reams of news stories filled the archives. The Columbine file seems to be nearing completion (although one can never know, as information unknown to exist has a knack for surprise appearances). The ten-year also saw the publication of three books that reporters often used a pivots for their coverage, including mine, Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).
And yet, media coverage of the ten-year was often uninformed and served to create new myths surrounding Columbine. The misguided coverage seems to fall into two main categories. Many reporters bought into a new myth that the Columbine killers were simply ordinary, popular teens, without stopping to critically examine that statement. Do ordinary teens really commit school shootings? If so, why don’t we have thousands of school shootings a day? If school shooters are ordinary, does that make the vast majority of teens who do not commit school shootings out of the mainstream? Of course not. School shooters are a disaffected, but thankfully rare breed.
Another false buy-in on the ten-year anniversary was that the Columbine “myths” were just now being debunked. In fact, plenty of media in the days and months after Columbine did get many aspects wrong. But they later corrected it. And the errors were not necessarily due to sloppiness, laziness or pursuit of a neat story angle. In part, it was inaccurate information accurately reported. Columbine students, for example, repeated error-filled stories to reporters either because they didn’t know or made honest mistakes (i.e. they truly thought Cassie Bernall was the one who said “yes,” she believed in God). Reporters wrote it down.
Columbine remains Colorado’s largest criminal probe with thousands of interviews, potential witnesses, and a crime scene the size of a high school. A small army of investigators did not have a full picture for months. Yet some of the media still got the early details right – or at least they provided multiple viewpoints. Many inaccuracies were corrected long before the ten-year anniversary. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the recent news coverage.
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Columbine and the real thing

July 5, 2009 at 7:55 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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My last book signing for Columbine: A True Crime Story taught a lesson about how there is no substitute for the real thing.

The signing was at the Houston Barnes & Noble across from the massive, famous Galleria chock full of retail stores. The significance was that I was with Michael Shoels, the father of Isaiah Shoels, who was killed at Columbine.

We must have looked like an odd couple; me a short white guy in a tie and Michael a tall black man dressed all in black. We have known each other for almost ten years, since I started writing the Columbine book, and it meant a lot to be with him in Houston. I felt proud to share the moment with Michael because he and his family had opened up to me long, long before I had a book contract, and believed in me as an honest person and a book author. And the tour was part of proving I could publish the book. (I was also told, in Houston, that my book was required reading for a course in criminal profiling at Rice University.)

The final chapter of my book is about the Shoels family. Early on, they were amongst the most critical of the victims families, questioning the school, police, and killers’ parents. The Shoels, in turn, became amongst the most criticized of the victims’ families. People said their stances and lawsuits (among the first to emerge from Columbine) were grandstanding, opportunism, and money-grubbing. But no matter how hard you try to tell the story, it is no substitute for the real thing: Being there alongside a victims family. To hear Michael tell his stories brought up old emotions, and new emotions, as he recounted his feelings and fights for information. And Michael reminded people only the way a victims family can: Columbine never goes away.

Buy Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers on Amazon.

Columbine and Virginia Tech school shooting memorials

June 15, 2009 at 1:47 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I visited the memorial to the Virginia Tech school shooting victims today, just over two years after I followed a Columbine parent there.

April 20, 2007 was the eight-year anniversary of Columbine and four days after the Tech shootings left 33 dead, including the killer. Tech is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Columbine is the deadliest high school shooting.A terrible torch was passed on that day when Michael Shoels, the father of slain Columbine student Isaiah Shoels, traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia with his traveling gospel of grief counseling and civics lesson.

As I visited the Tech memorial a little after noon today, a few things struck me. After the shootings, 33 thick squares of pale ‘Hokie Stone’ (named for the school nickname) ringed the crest of the central grassy quad area known as Drillfield. One controversial stone, it seemed clear, was for the shooter. Similar things happened after Columbine, such as when at least one person posted crosses for the Colorado shooters.

School shooters may be in anguish, but I think most people believe it is inappropriate to memorialize them alongside the victims.

The permanent memorial at Virginia Tech is an arc of 32 square stones. Each is about the size of an ice bucket, near where the original stones were placed. Each stone is engraved with the name of a victim, and a sprig of fresh flowers leaned against each stone. (I wonder if they are changed every day.) The Tech memorial is powerful, but smaller and more low-key than the Columbine Memorial, which has written remembrances to the victims, quotes from community members, and envelops people with stone walls as they walk inside. The Columbine Memorial more fully shuts out the rest of the world. That Tech even has a memorial also differs from Columbine: It took several years to raise the money for the Columbine Memorial.

Tech today was certainly quieter than the day I was there. No satellite trucks. The dozens of reporters, and hundreds of mourners, were gone. But the memories were still there. And that’s how it should be.

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