In the days since Salon News published its exclusive stories on the investigation of the Columbine High School killings, several news reports have featured complaints by the local sheriff's department about the stories' sourcing. Salon stands by the stories completely, and would like to clarify some issues about their reporting, writing and sourcing.
Denver journalist Dave Cullen has covered the Columbine tragedy for Salon since the moment the shootings were first reported by local media. For five months, he has stayed with the story and, after the breaking news was past, he wrote major features about the killings for Salon, the Denver Post and the local Denver magazine 5280. In those months he developed numerous reliable sources close to the investigation.
As the articles explained, Cullen based his most recent stories on interviews with multiple reliable sources, some of whom he named, others whose names he did not reveal, by prior agreement. He gained access to Eric Harris' writings, including some passages from his so-called diary -- a collection of widely spaced entries stretching over a year -- from several different sources.
Some of the writings had been reproduced by investigators and shown to at least half a dozen groups, including the school district's leadership "cabinet" and law-enforcement associations. Passages were typed onto slides and projected for attendees to see, in meetings where participants were able to take notes on their contents. Well over 100 faculty and staff, for instance, were present at an Aug. 12 meeting where typed reproductions of Harris' texts were projected.
Sources read to Cullen from a variety of materials where they had reproduced exact or in some cases near-exact replicas of the excerpts. As stated in the original article, "punctuation and superficial transcription errors may have occurred."
To protect sources, Salon chose not to identify exactly which Harris texts some of the passages were drawn from. In the two passages clearly identified as being from the diary, the wording is precise.
Since the articles were published, the sheriff's department has called it "almost impossible" that Cullen got access to the killers' writings. Officials have minimized the amount of time individuals spent talking with Cullen as well, insisting, for instance, that lead investigator Kate Battan spoke with Cullen for only a minute.
Cullen's conversation with Battan actually lasted 40 minutes, during which time Battan commented on and debunked the wide assortment of myths that have been reported about Dylan Klebold and Harris over the last five months. Since the publication of the stories, Battan has acknowledged (through spokesman Steve Davis) the accuracy of the quotes attributed to her.
Cullen also spoke for 26 minutes with Division Chief John Kiekbusch, the
ranking officer overseeing the case. Battan, Kiekbusch and other named sources were invaluable in providing the context necessary to understand the rambling, often contradictory written materials.
We are happy to report that no one has refuted a single fact in the articles. Keikbusch told the Rocky Mountain News that Salon's diary excerpts "were consistent with the types of writings that Harris posted on the Internet and those found in his home following the attacks."
Upon hearing from other news sources that the sheriff's department was casting doubt on our stories, Cullen contacted sources there to ask whether they in fact had problems with what had been reported, and no one has taken issue with any of the facts in either story.
We know the sheriff's department has been besieged by literally hundreds of local and national journalists wondering, in some cases angrily, how Salon got the story others have been chasing. The department's dismay at the stories' wide circulation is understandable. That should not obscure the fact that no one has challenged a single word of what Salon reported.
When the department's final report is released sometime later this year, we expect it to confirm what was first revealed here -- that the Columbine massacre was not driven by animus against any particular group, but by lethal, indiscriminate hatred.