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Opinion: How the media — including me — unwittingly helped create a Columbine narrative that has inspired murderers ever since

But the mythology around killers no longer needs press coverage to spread

Illustration by Lonnie MF Allen, Special to The Colorado Sun.
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Red Lake High School. Dawson College. Sparks Middle School. Townville Elementary School.

In the 20 years since the Columbine High School murders, there have been at least 43 attacks around the world where killers drew inspiration from Columbine. All told, 210 people were murdered. Another 394 were injured.

Gutenberg Gymnasium. Albertville-Realschule. Seinäjoki University. Lycée Alexis de Tocqueville.

If you don’t know them by their locations, you might know them by the names of the killers — which is part of the problem.

Virginia Tech University. Umpqua Community College. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Columbine,” said Peter Langman, a psychologist who studies school shooters and tracks their influences, “more than any other attack, is cited most often.”

But this is an inspiration based on a myth, the myth that motive matters, that killers must be understood. And that myth was partly created by the media, seeking answers in the aftermath to such unimaginable violence that everyone was desperate to prevent it from ever happening again.

I would know.

Twenty years ago, in my own small way, I helped fuel that myth. Now, I don’t know if we can stop it.

(Illustration by Lonnie MF Allen, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On April 22, 1999, a teenage boy approached a red Acura parked in a lot near Columbine High School, threw his arms across the roof and began to sob.

His cries, low and heaving, echoed through Clement Park. People gathered nearby went silent. In my memory, there are no competing sounds, no shuffling of feet, no hum of traffic. Minute after relentless minute, this boy sobbed onto the car, which had been turned into a memorial for 17-year-old Rachel Scott, until his friends and family had to support his muscular body to keep him from collapsing in exhaustion.

It is still the most painful sound I have ever heard.

But, in that moment, it also felt like none of my business.

I was a 21-year-old college student, an intern at the Rocky Mountain News. My assignment was to go to the Columbine memorial growing daily at Clement Park and ask kids there if they knew anything about the killers.

The snow that fell the day after Columbine had turned to slush that soaked my thin socks and turned the ground to mud that tugged at my shoes. I approached anyone who looked young enough and timidly asked, “Do you go to Columbine?” And the answer — yes or no — always came back with a gentle smile because the ritual and fatigue of mass shooting coverage had not yet taken hold on either side of the notebook.

Most young people were just there to pay their respects, and I felt relieved not to have to trouble them more. The grief there explained itself, worth reporting — as outlets across the world did, with dedication and sensitivity — but not aggressively. The stories that reporters were competing over most had to do with the killers.

“Why?” is always the most haunting question. In the aftermath of Columbine, it felt like answering why was the key to stopping any future shootings. There was something that went wrong. Understand the killers and their motivations, and you will save lives.

And, so, even in the days immediately after the shooting, little details about them swelled to great significance.

They wore heavy trench coats and wrote dark poems for class. “Quiet loners” with a reputation “for being outsiders,” one Rocky Mountain News headline described them the day after the shooting.

Some students said the killers may have targeted athletes. Had they been bullied? “Dissecting Columbine’s Cult of the Athlete,” read a Washington Post headline a couple months later.

For decades now, journalist Dave Cullen has rigorously documented all the ways these storylines oversimplified or were just plain wrong about the Columbine attacks. The killers had not been bullied, not to any significant degree. They were popular within their social circles. They weren’t even members of the Trench Coat Mafia, that group with which they were so closely linked after the shooting. Instead, years later, mental health experts concluded that one of the killers was a psychopath and the other was suicidally depressed — answers that provided far more insight into prevention strategies.

But those early impressions had already hardened into a well-meaning and mistaken explanation for the tragedy: The killers had been harassed, and the shooting was their act of revenge.

Anti-bullying campaigns — without question, a good thing — sprouted at schools. More than a year later, an official investigation into the attacks was still trying to get to the bottom of purported bullying at Columbine. Two years after the killings, a colleague and I wrote an article at The Denver Post, following a Columbine-inspired attack in California, that sought to explain what motivates school shooters. The headline: “The bullied become ‘avengers.’”

There was also a sense of shock in the early coverage that helped build the mythos.

No journalist delights in covering murder — no matter how much critics accuse the media of pushing gore to sell papers. But, in our mindset, shocking details are sometimes necessary to convey how important it is to pay attention. By motivating people to care, the thinking goes, we can be a force for good.

But, after Columbine, the shock was overwhelming, smothering any sense of self-awareness. “Death goes to school with cold, evil laughter,” was a headline in the following day’s Rocky Mountain News.

Even as it was happening, I remember a queasy feeling that the shooting had hacked the media’s impulses, turning what would ordinarily be good intentions into distorted versions. Reporters by the hundreds descended on suburban Denver. There was a restless competitiveness mingling with tender compassion.

In one instance, I was sent out to perform a standard practice of responsible journalism: Knocking on someone’s door and asking if they want to talk. But, when I arrived, I found a cul-du-sac full of local and national reporters staked out in front of the house of one of the killers’ friends.

We were all waiting for her to return from a meeting with authorities, and the day stretched late into the afternoon. A national TV crew broke out folding chairs and ordered pizza. Just deliver it to the end of the street, they said.

When the car we had been waiting for finally drove up, a dozen reporters with cameras crowded in front — and then quickly backpedaled when the vehicle did not not slow down. The garage door to the home opened remotely behind them. The car hit the end of the driveway with such force sparks burst from the undercarriage. And, as the garage door closed behind it, I remember several reporters shouting questions into the darkness inside, crouching lower and lower until the door met the ground.

Shaken, I sat down on the sidewalk. A veteran reporter from a national news outlet sat next to me.

“These stories are tough,” he tried to reassure me, “but they need to be told. It’s important work.”

I asked where he was from.

“National Enquirer,” he said.

(Illustration by Lonnie MF Allen, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The first attack inspired by Columbine happened eight days after Columbine.

A boy in Canada who had watched news coverage of the tragedy donned a trench coat and killed a fellow student and wounded another. The next shooting came on the one-month anniversary of Columbine, committed by a boy in Georgia who wrote, “I have been planning this for years, but finally got pissed off enough to really do it,” according to Langman’s research.

In the past 20 years, killers have read books about Columbine, watched documentaries about Columbine, written school reports about Columbine, visited Columbine and searched internet postings about Columbine. Many have sought out the Columbine killers’ writings. Some have described them as heroes or role models. One dubbed his attack “Operation Columbine.”

“I cannot get Columbine off my mind,” wrote a different attacker, who killed three people in 2017 in Pennsylvania.

There have also been dozens — and maybe more — Columbine-inspired attacks that never came to fruition because authorities stopped them.

In late 2017, police in Colorado Springs arrested two boys who allegedly created a list of people they wanted to murder at their school. The boys “idolized” the Columbine killers, according to authorities, and traded news clippings about Columbine via email and text message. They were 13 years old.

Langman said there’s no clear answer to what makes Columbine such a continuing touchstone. Numerous shootings since have been more deadly. But there’s some combination of the killers’ self-aggrandizing writings, in which they describe themselves as God-like; the myth that they were bullied victims striking back; and the way all this came together with the growth of cable news and the internet that troubled minds may find appealing.

“Violence is a way to go from being a nobody to being a somebody,” Langman told a group of Colorado educators hoping to learn how to prevent school shootings earlier this year. “A lot of the shooters are feeling disempowered.”

And this idea of empowerment through murder can spread like a virus, with media attention potentially serving as a vector that carries it from killer to killer. The concept of mass shooting contagion, little studied until just a few years ago, is now gaining momentum in academic circles.

In 2015, researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University published a paper finding “significant evidence of contagion in mass killings and school shootings.” A 2016 study reached a similar conclusion.

A 2017 study, led by a professor at the University of Alabama named Adam Lankford, disputed these conclusions, finding no evidence of short-term contagion for mass shootings. But Lankford noted that, the deadlier the attack, the more likely it is to receive outsized media attention, which could prolong its inspirational value to would-be killers.

“The most extreme example comes from the Columbine school shooting,” he wrote.

Previous work by Lankford has found that mass killers can, at least for a short period of time, receive more media coverage than even the biggest celebrities in Hollywood. And Lankford estimated that mass killers in sum between 2013 and 2017 received roughly $75 million in media coverage value.

A separate study, by a professor at the University of Oregon, found that newspapers were more likely to run medium-to-large-sized photos of mass shooters on their front pages than of victims. And, while the papers overall ran more photos of victims than perpetrators, the papers were 16 times more likely to run a perpetrator’s photo than any one victim’s photo.

The growing realization that we in the media must take responsibility for not inspiring the next generation of killers has led to a number of guidelines being put forth for how to cover mass shootings. Generally, they agree on the same points: Name the killer and use his photo as little as possible, if at all; don’t publish his manifestos; don’t portray his actions dramatically or show fascination in his motives; focus instead on the victims who were lost, the survivors who are suffering and the systems that may have broken down to allow the attack to happen.

They are all important new standards for journalists to adhere to.

But, in trying to implement them, they can also seem built for a world that is rapidly disappearing.

(Illustration by Lonnie MF Allen, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The back door to the courtroom opened, and four dozen journalists leaned forward in their seats to get a better look at the man who had just entered. The shackles around his wrists and ankles clinked as he walked.

This was July 2012, three days after the worst mass shooting in Colorado since Columbine. And, in covering the court case of the murderer who committed the Aurora movie theater attack, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, not to create any reason to celebrate this individual.

So, in a story the next day on the killer’s first court appearance, my Denver Post colleagues and I wrote about how he slouched as he walked in. We included a quote from a shooting survivor: “He just looks like a pathetic freak.” We treated with skepticism the claim that the killer had identified himself as the Joker following the attack — a claim that turned out to be false.

We hadn’t adopted the new guidelines for covering mass shootings — no one had yet suggested them — and we included the killer’s name and photos prominently in the coverage. But, as the case carried on, we emphasized them less and less. Instead, we wrote about his mental illness, his academic failures, his romantic inadequacies. We wrote about all the people whose help and care he refused. We wrote about the systems that failed to prevent his attack. We wrote about the victims and survivors and the strength they possessed that he did not.

This evolving approach was due to lengthy conversations with Caren and Tom Teves, whose son Alex was murdered in the theater. In response, the Teveses created the No Notoriety campaign, the first effort to direct widespread attention to the need for reporters to be mindful of the inspirational power of media coverage on would-be killers.

The case was one of the most prominent in our state’s history and an important moment for journalists to bring transparency to the process, especially as prosecutors sought the death penalty. We didn’t banish his name from our pages entirely.

But the killer in Aurora had written his own kind of manifesto and taken photos of himself he hoped would be memorable. Don’t give him the attention that he wants, the Teveses would urge us, and, gradually, we nodded in understanding.

But, as the case went to trial, it felt like we had failed again.

Twice during the trial there were new, random attacks at movie theaters across the country. And, while there was no direct evidence that they had been inspired by the Aurora case, it was hard to see how they were not. Each one left me sick and doubting the value of covering such an important trial so closely.

Parallel to our coverage, whole online communities had grown up devoted to studying and researching the Aurora attack — sometimes drawing information from the traditional media but just as often not. They used social media pages of the victims and court documents posted on the internet. They cross-referenced one another and floated wild theories. In some of these forums, the fact that the traditional media had reported something almost become proof that the information was not true.

Parents of victims soon were receiving phone calls from people who told them their children never existed. Survivors were being called crisis actors. Twice during the court case, members of the public watching the proceedings leaped from their seats to declare that the killer was innocent. One survivor had someone who impersonated her and filed court motions in her name.

When the trial ended, prosecutors released 200 pages of letters mailed to the Aurora killer from people across the globe. There was a mother who talked about wanting him to babysit her children. People told of their love for him. “You are in my thoughts each and every day,” a woman in Scotland wrote. Strangers had deposited more than $4,000 into his account at the jail.

And dozens of young women had sent him photos purportedly of themselves. He arranged them on a wall in his jail cell around a drawing he made of a symbol that signified his belief that killing brings power.

I stared at the picture of that wall for hours. Had my coverage helped inspire this?

“We’re in such a difficult moment right now with these mass shootings because of the idea … we’re not the gatekeepers anymore,” Charlie Warzel, a New York Times opinion writer who studies online extremism, told me when I called him recently to confess my fears. “In the age of the internet, we don’t really have any control over the narrative that gets told.”

This is not to say that journalists can disclaim responsibility for what we write; notice that I haven’t used a single killer’s name in this piece. But killers no longer need the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television newscasts — to spread their message, draw inspiration from others or validate their notoriety.

Warzel pointed to the attack last month in New Zealand, where the killer was not only inspired by the online microcommunity in which he intellectually lived, but also seemed to be performing for it. Police pleaded with the media not to share the killer’s writings or videos, and many journalists immediately recognized the danger in doing so. But that still didn’t stop those writings and videos from spreading widely, popping up again and again in social media feeds and elsewhere on the web.

Do a Google search for the Columbine killers’ writings, and the results might lead you to websites devoted to archiving information about Columbine, or to a community on Reddit that debates and exchanges information about Columbine.

Or maybe to the website of Peter Langman, the psychologist who studies school shootings. On his site — schoolshooters.info — he has posted hundreds of pages of writings by school shooters as a way of helping people identify potential attackers. But he has also documented one case, the shooting at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, where the killer had apparently read his book on preventing school shootings.

This gets to perhaps the grimmest challenge facing the media: It’s almost impossible to know what might be inspiring to a killer. Would focusing on the victims make killers feel powerful because of the value of the lives they took? Would refusing to print their names be seen in some dark corners of the internet as a sign of their strength?

Warzel said reporters should think hard about the value of their coverage — why it’s important to report on shootings and what kind of information is most needed to explain that importance. It’s wisdom we desperately needed 20 years ago, but it’s also wisdom that reflects a truth we didn’t want to accept then and still don’t want to accept now:

The shootings won’t end because of us.

“The hard thing about these shootings in thinking about them in any sort of cohesive way is acknowledging that they’re going to keep happening,” Warzel said.

And so we are left with a nightmare that we, in our rush to find a solution, helped create. The outcome of journalists and others in the community who well-meaningly thought Why? was the best question to ask in the face of grief. The legacy of killers who weren’t at all what we originally thought they were.

The unstoppable myth of Columbine.

Rising Sun