Columbine and the End of Journalism…TIME Mag and LA Times miss the mark

April 21, 2010 at 11:34 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hit 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.

I previously discussed shortcomings in Newsweek’s coverage of Columbine’s ten-year anniversary. But they were not the only ones who wrote as if they were unaware of the twists and turns the Columbine story had taken.
Writing in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman’s ten-year anniversary story was titled “The Meaning Of Murder.” The first line in TIME’s big piece tried to reach for news and said of the killers, “They weren’t gay.”
Grossman doesn’t say why that is new, and it’s not clear the (false) notion that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gay ever gained acceptance in the mainstream media. On May 2, 1999, just less than two weeks after the shootings, the Rocky quoted someone who knew the killers with the same words Grossman used: “They were not gay. They did not wear makeup,” Dustin Gorton told the paper. “There’s so much information coming out about them that just isn’t true.” Stories on the “basement tapes” made by the killers often note their anti-gay rhetoric, including a TIME magazine story published in 1999.
The next line in TIME magazine’s big ten-year piece announces that the killers “weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia.” (Probably true, although long a topic of debate.)
For Grossman “maybe the most surprising thing…is how quickly it all happened.” He is in awe that Harris and Klebold ended their lives 49 minutes after the shooting began and “All the murders happened in the first 16 [minutes].” Well, that’s the same information released in May 2000 in the sheriff’s official version of events.
Yet TIME seems to take a swipe at the media saying that “the stories that have already been told” have to be untold. Now TIME’s story can be untold.
Although Grossman is insightful in opining that we should focus on Klebold, not the more fiery Harris: “If there is a lesson here, it lies in Klebold’s story, which is the more disturbing because he was, at heart, like us. He was capable of love and sympathy, and he discarded them. Some killers are natural born. Klebold was made.”

* * *
Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin began a review of a Columbine book by saying, “Forget everything you thought you knew.” Ulin goes on to herald the revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying “yes” she believed in God. (Another girl, Valeen Schnurr, did say she believed in God, and after being shot. She survived.) The false Bernall story did go worldwide in the months after Columbine and Bernall’s mother wrote the book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
But five months after the shootings, on Sept. 23, 1999 (yes, 1999), the Denver Post, citing Salon.com, noted “‘key investigators’ doubt the widely reported story that 17-year-old Cassie Bernall was slain because she told the killers, as a gun was held to her head, that she indeed believed in God.” The next day the Rocky ran a story with the headline, “ACCOUNTS DIFFER ON QUESTION TO BERNALL COLUMBINE SHOOTING VICTIM MAY NOT HAVE BEEN ASKED WHETHER SHE BELIEVED IN GOD.” The next month the Washington Post reported, “Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else.”
Misinformation early on wasn’t necessarily due to sloppy reporting. Ten of the thirteen victims were killed in the library. Investigators needed time to sift through information and correct errors. Despite the many valid criticisms of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, it seems to have done an able job in debunking the Bernall myth long before the ten-year.
To be sure, many in the public still seem to have genuinely believed such myths of Columbine. As did journalists. But journalists should proceed on what is known, not their perception.
Yet Ulin chides “the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled nothing so much as an enormous game of telephone.” He adds that the media “parachuted into Columbine, asked a few questions and then parachuted out.” But a simple spot check on the Bernall issue shows the Washington Post, Denver Post and Rocky quickly got it right. The Denver Post and Rocky, meantime, never parachuted in. Then again, they never left. They also filed lawsuits, as did victims families, that freed up valuable information. A Denver Post lawsuit that took four years resulted in the release of nearly 1,000 pages of key writings by the killers and Harris’ father.
Ulin (and most other reviewers) never mentions that. Nor do they mention the Denver Post won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, in the words of the judges, “for its clear and balanced coverage of the student massacre at Columbine High School.” (Nor, if that Pulitzer wasn’t warranted, do reviewers criticize the Pulitzer judges. Do the reviewers even know about the Columbine Pulitzer?) The Rocky also won a Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography of Columbine.

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Columbine and the End of Journalism – Denver Post Op-Ed

April 18, 2010 at 7:14 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A summary article of my blogs on Columbine media coverage this past year appears in a Denver Post online Guest Commentary today. This is how it begins:

Colorado’s biggest news story gave us a lesson in journalism last year. The 10-year anniversary of Columbine came as school shootings and other mass shootings sadly thrive as high-profile social issues. So with good reason, a phalanx of international media descended on Colorado for April 20, 2009. It seems safe to say that media coverage of Columbine’s 10-year anniversary was rivaled only by coverage of the shootings themselves.

One instance of what I might calls journalism without context came in TIME magazine which, like most media, seemed unaware of the reporting that had been done on Columbine over the past ten years. From my Op-Ed:

In TIME magazine last year Lev Grossman wrote that “maybe the most surprising thing…is how quickly it all happened.” He was in awe that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ended their lives some 49 minutes after the shooting began and “All the murders happened in the first 16 (MINUTES).” Well, that’s the same information released in May 2000 in then Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone’s official version of events.

There were also high points, which included the Denver Post:

In a survey of Columbine books (mine included) The Denver Post reviewer Keith Coffman noted, “The Columbine massacre of a decade ago was one of the most widely – if inaccurately – reported crime stories in American history.” Although the record also shows that many errors were corrected, which the Post captures: “Myths surrounding the school shooting that were seared into the public consciousness from the early news coverage were later debunked, but muted by the passage of time.” That key subtlety is the one that almost every reviewer and reporter across the nation missed, and so came to believe that what was old was news.

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

April 15, 2010 at 12:13 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 myths, such as Cassie Bernall saying she believed in God before being shot, were quickly disproved. Other “myths” were never myths at all, such as shooter Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s disdain for virtually all other humans. Some supposed myths are complicated. Harris and Klebold may not have been members of the Trench Coat Mafia. But they wore trench coats; had friends in the clique; and maybe most importantly, identified with the group’s rebelliousness.

Yet the ability to grasp subtleties and provide historical context was not evident for many reporters and book reviewers going over Columbine. As they attempted to rewrite the Columbine story on the ten-year, the subtext was, ‘We blindly put our faith in the early news reports. Now we are told they were wrong. We are now blindly putting our faith in the latest story we are hearing.’

So the first reporters at Columbine were lumped into one category and chastised on the ten-year anniversary for not getting it totally accurate in the first hours, or days. Contemporary armchair journalists – themselves often misinformed – now harangued the rest of their on-the-ground brethren. This was all more perverse because the media seemed to take such glee in the spanking.

Columbine’s ten-year anniversary arrived as the business of journalism is crumbling amidst cries about its central role to democracy and a free society. Yet in covering Columbine on the ten-year many major publications fell flat on their face. It’s hard to rally round journalism after such instances. Do we really need TIME and Newsweek if they can’t get Columbine right? Reporters may have also been blinded by a desire to find some “news” – a new storyline – to add spark to anniversary coverage rather than take a look back. But one story the media might investigate is how, despite our ever-growing databases of knowledge, the public and plenty of journalists still manage to be misinformed.

A key way for reporters to become instant experts on a story is to “check the clips,” or what has already been written. Even if the clips have errors, reporters at least have a foundation on what questions to ask and may, wittingly or not, uncover past errors. Maybe it should be no surprise that some of the best Columbine coverage came from reporters who checked more than one source (or any source). That’s the good news: Good coverage doesn’t require anything fancy or expensive, but rather the tried and true method of being a reporter, checking the clips, and checking the facts. So simple, yet seemingly so tough.

Bloggers, called the grass roots saviors who would correct the biases and shortcomings of the “mainstream media,” mostly failed as dramatically as the professional press corps. Do we even expect bloggers to use more than one source and check the clips? If we don’t, we should. They seem to think whatever is floating around in their head must be true. They’re wrong.

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