Do media vultures perpetuate mass shootings?

We remember the killers' names, but not the victims, mourns the daughter of a teacher at Columbine

Published December 29, 2012 2:00PM (EST)

Members of the media photograph mourners as they emerge from Blacksburg Presbyterian Church after the memorial service for Virginia Tech shooting victim Kevin P. Granata in Blacksburg, Va., Friday, April 20, 2007. The service was closed to media cameras at the request of the family.      (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Members of the media photograph mourners as they emerge from Blacksburg Presbyterian Church after the memorial service for Virginia Tech shooting victim Kevin P. Granata in Blacksburg, Va., Friday, April 20, 2007. The service was closed to media cameras at the request of the family. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Outside Columbine High on the day of the attacks, a photographer standing near me flipped open a phone and cheered, excitement uncontained: "It's Pulitzer time!" This man knew I could hear him. He just didn't care. At the time — and in my shock — I registered disgust, but commercial journalism wasn’t yet my life’s loudest bully. Before the month was over, there would be a Japanese reporter camping out in a car outside my house. When someone from our shattered family came or went, he would scramble out of the car, seeking salable dirt on the shooters. They had been students in one of my mom's classes. My aunt taught English to several of their victims.

My aunt called the reporters “carrion birds.” My mom was too stunned to say much of anything about them. It fell to me to field their calls: “Columbine,” this thing that wounded 24 and killed 13 and almost took my mother, was an all-day, wall-to-wall media happening. A pair of journalists from the New York Times even used an enrolled student as a ruse. My mom arrived at a coffee shop to tutor a boy who’d been unable to return to school, and there they were, tagging along. Interrupting education. Seeking any small anecdote on murderers the 24-hour news cycle had already turned forever into figures of anti-heroic intrigue.

The way our news media descends on a community in crisis, thieves its grief, and overlays false narratives atop the real can be permanently and alienatingly traumatic. Putting children before cameras in Newtown, Conn., simply to have traumatized children on camera is the newest and most plainly grotesque of these acts. At their most obvious, these approaches read as exploitation, as the thoughtless story-scramble we all know and loathe. The subtler cruelty comes in the long-term effects of speculation and copycat-baiting; of simplification and assumption and shallow debate; of turning a living place into its most horrific day — “Newtown,” “Aurora,” “Columbine” — and then refusing to let the locals opt out of endless, image-bloated reruns. The despair such violence leaves behind is enormous, and mediatization of that trauma is an augmented, ongoing pain. Many of those locals will be dealing with it — forced forever to happen upon the murderer’s face, to read and hear his name — long after their dead have been relegated nationally to a mere class of people, a media-designated group: The Newtown Victims.

Six days after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, the student government there voted to kick outside media off campus entirely. Amie Steele, then a junior serving as editor-in-chief of the Collegiate Times, remembers how disruptive their presence became. “At one point, there was a student obviously crying at the memorial set up on the Drillfield,” she says. “A cameraman came over and had the camera inches from her face. She turned to him and asked him to not record her. The cameraman replied that his producer sent him out to find a good shot of a student crying, and she had a good crying expression.”

Steele says that by the end there were camera crews “walking through dorms and off-campus apartment complexes looking for students to interview because they were starting to get desperate.”

There are correct and incorrect ways to cover violence and its legacy — ways that harm while offering little public benefit, and ways that work from an understanding of both the causes and effects of violence. Bruce Shapiro, the journalist who heads Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, has devoted his life to helping reporters learn how to do this the right way. Shapiro was himself severely injured in a widely publicized mass stabbing in 1994. The next year, he wrote in The Nation that one of his "bursts of victim-consciousness” after the attacks involved the press. “Objectively, I know that many people who took the trouble to express their sympathy to me found out only through news stories,” he wrote. “And sensitive reporting can for the crime victim be a kind of ratification of the seriousness of an assault, a reflection of the community's concern."

But despite a good experience with one hometown journalist, Shapiro said most of coverage of his stabbing was “exploitative, intrusive and inaccurate.” Shapiro says, "Such press coverage inspired in all of us a rage that is impossible to convey. In a study commissioned by the British Broadcasting Standards Council, survivors of violent crimes and disasters 'told story after story of the hurt they suffered through the timing of media attention, intrusion into their privacy and harassment, through inaccuracy, distortion and distasteful detail in what was reported.' This suffering is not superficial."

Steele too remembers how inaccurate much of the reporting about the Virginia Tech attacks was. “The gunman’s identity and ethnicity were both widely inaccurately reported by several outlets, just like after the shooting in Newtown,” she says. Though inaccuracy is in some ways the result of the chaos of such an event and of the speed of today's journalism, it is also the fault of method and philosophy. Steele calls it “lazy.”

Inaccurate stories can have a very long life. Approaching 14 years later, most of what the public still believes about “Columbine” is not true. Dave Cullen, who spent a decade writing the myth-dismantling corrective book, "Columbine," was at the school that day covering the shootings for Salon. He says that the most pervasive myth — the idea that the shooters were terribly abused Trench Coat Mafia losers targeting jocks and Christians in an act of revenge — began when largely well-meaning journalists who were unschooled in what the Dart Center teaches found themselves interviewing kids who'd just experienced the unthinkable.

“There was no malice and there was no intent, but there is this instinct to go with the juiciest story,” Cullen says. When some kids started speculating about old feuds between the Abercrombie and Fitch types and a mostly graduated group of loners, reporters perked up. This fit the easy, existing assumptions about “school shooters,” even though in the end this was not even what the Columbine attackers intended to be. Rumors of bullying and vengeance quickly hit the airwaves, where the school’s nearly 2,000 kids heard and absorbed them. Teenagers eager to talk then repeated them back to a 24-hour media eager to speculate, and thus the nation came to have a diversionary, ultimately false conversation about everything that “Columbine” largely wasn’t.

Steele was frustrated by what she calls the “ignorance” of the national media after the shootings at Virginia Tech. “I did an interview with a major network and the interviewer actually suggested that a fence should be built around campus to keep any potential dangers out,” she says. “I had to remind the interviewer that not only is it a public university, but the gunman was a student, so he would have been able to pass through any security that would be in place.” Familiarly, she tells me that “there seemed to be no intelligent discussion of national gun control or mental health policy, which were really the big issues that could have prevented the shooting. In the months and years that went by after the media left campus, these became huge issues in the state. Since the news cycle had moved on, none of that was discussed nationally.”

The conversation following the shootings at Columbine should have been very much like the one we’re endeavoring to have today — successfully or not, exploitatively or not — about a complex of factors like weapons access, mental-health intervention for specific vulnerable populations, suicide, stigma, media infamy and the difficulties of life in America. The fact that violence has no one simple cause. The way the hierarchies of our institutions simply mirror the wider world. There is no way to know if any of the subsequent mass killings might have been averted had the news cycle not taken us down yet another parallel road, but surely a culture-wide exercise in aggressively missing the point never helps. In the process, we demonized an already vulnerable population of teens, subtly vilified the victims themselves, drew a roadmap to infamy for copycats, pretended that the rarest types of violence are our most pressing violence and enabled J.T. Leroy to thieve the voices of a whole new adolescent demographic.

Often it felt as though there was no room for the real. It feels that way still. Whether it’s on television or in person, a reference to “Columbine” -- the name-brand event, the spectacle cable practically presented as reality-enhanced entertainment -- can still rip me from my moorings. Simultaneously, I’m back in that elementary school on April 20, hearing the coroner talk to the last lingering parents about dental records and clothes, and I'm in a bar in Brooklyn, where a woman is entertaining her friends with absurdly self-important stories of having attended CHS, of having known those vile, deserving victims. (I’m asking her, with initially friendly intentions, if she ever had class with my mom, my aunt, my decades-old family friends … who her principal was … who anyone was … and she’s turning to flee as I turn to help another customer.) Suddenly I’m at CHS to pick up family, upset and shouting at giddy tourists on the grass; I’m bedbound with depression again, thinking of my mom in that cafeteria with the bombs so close by; I’m at the Colorado hotel that inspired "The Shining," being followed by an excited tourist pack hissing “Redrum! Redrum!” because I’ve thoughtlessly thrown on one of our dozens of school sweatshirts, and let’s face it, “Columbine” was a pretty gripping movie.

Simultaneously, I’m on the phone talking down a suicidal survivor — a news-invisible adult, a family friend with a shotgun in her hand — and I'm on the receiving end of accusations that I’m a pathological liar, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That, of course, I didn’t grow up playing there, running around the empty halls and helping the CHS newspaper staff some nights after school. Everyone knows what “Columbine” was about. Stop talking about the dead special-needs kid.

Because everyone knows why they did it. Everyone knows their faces and their names. As Not-Real Morgan Freeman spoke so beautifully to a world where fictional persons voice truth and journalists routinely deliver lies, we all know Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but few can remember their victims. Few know anything about the boy whose shock-mad mother sat beside my sister and me in that elementary school waiting futilely for her son to appear.

That is the legacy of terrible journalism. We cannot let it happen again.

There are people with ideas about how to do that, and one of them is Park Dietz. Dietz, already a celebrity forensic psychologist, has become a minor viral figure since the Newtown shootings, thanks to people sharing a clip of one of his earlier calls for media restraint following a mass killing. He believes that the current nature of reporting on these incidents, with its panting excitement and its continual focus on the biographical details of assailants, helps incentivize those rare individuals who might be prepared to act similarly.

“I’d like to see the emotional tone stick as closely to the tragic as possible, and to avoid emotional arousal of a kind that's stimulating,” Dietz says. For Dietz, emotional arousal means sounds of sirens, images of ambulances, flashing lights, aerial shots of first responders and fleeing kids, quick edits and bodycount supremacy — things that excite and upset, psychologically and physically. “The second thing I’d like to see done is to reduce or eliminate identifiers of the shooters outside of the affected area and to reduce biographical information about the shooter. No amount of fulfillment of morbid curiosity is worth more lives.”

There is debate about whether media coverage of mass killings inspires copycats, but Dietz believes the phenomenon is real. “One after another, mass murderers to whom I've spoken have said so. They can trace which mass murders in the news got them going. Or they make comments on this in their diaries or journals, or in their writings.”

The invasive, round-the-clock, routinely perpetrator-fixated news also further traumatizes the immediate community, Dietz says. It can easily trigger trauma in people living with the legacy of other violent acts — and there is even evidence that people with no such history can experience symptoms of trauma just by watching it. The way we cover mass killings is simply, and obviously, not good for human beings, Dietz says.

Amie Steele and her Collegiate Times staff chose to cover the shootings at Virginia Tech differently than some of the national news outlets. Between the two campus attacks, the assailant mailed to NBC a package containing videos and photos of himself posing with guns and knives. “There was a bit of public outcry about using the videos and photos he sent,” Steele says. “Some people thought that it was asking for a copycat event since he was getting so much coverage. Some newspapers even used the photos as main art on the front page the next day.” Most of the families of victims were extremely upset by this, Steele says. In contrast to segments of the professional media, the Collegiate Times declined to use the attacker’s press packet. After the man’s identity had been confirmed, the Steele’s staff chose to name him in a story but not in the headline. They ran his driver’s license photo as accompanying art — on an inside page.

“We didn’t use any of the violent photos he sent to NBC,” Steele recalls. “In our opinion, we felt like the package was a cry for attention, and that was the last thing we wanted to give him.”

Loren Coleman, author of "The Copycat Effect" and a behavioral expert who has consulted on school violence for Maine state schools, argues that the recommendations prevention experts give regarding press-driven suicide contagion should apply to these types of murder-suicides as well. “Back in the ‘suicide days,’ if you put the method in the newspaper, the next series of suicide clusters exactly repeated the method,” he says. Now with mass shootings, too, he says, “we're even having the copycat down to the type of gun.”

The American Psychiatric Association agreed with Steele and Coleman in 2007 when, after the shootings at Virginia Tech, it distributed a letter calling on news organizations to stop disseminating the murderer’s self-made promo materials. Such publicity “not only seems insensitive to the grieving and traumatized families, friends and peers of those murdered and injured, but also seriously jeopardizes the public's safety by potentially inciting ‘copycat’ suicides, homicides and other incidents,” read the statement. The APA cited a World Health Organization Report, saying the “scientific evidence in this area is clear.” The APA also suggested that the assailant may have taken inspiration from “the Columbine tragedy.”

Even if copycatting is real, this does not mean that mass shootings are growing in number. In fact, says Grant Duwe, it appears to be it the opposite. Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has studied the history of mass murders in America, says that the incidence of mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s but dropped in the 2000s. “When we look at Columbine, that year was actually kind of an anomaly in the middle of a downward trend,” he says. He points to 1991 as the apex of that decade. Duwe is also among those who believe that there is no meaningful statistical or empirical proof of a copycat effect.

Coleman believes that there is a media-related reason for the general decline in such incidents in the 2000s. When international terrorism re-emerged as the nation’s primary mass-violence fear, news coverage of “Columbines” waned, he says — and therefore copycat clustering diminished as well. “Everybody was flying flags, everybody had to step in line after 9/11—and so did the media. Nobody was distracted. There were one or two school shootings that nobody ever heard about,” Coleman says.

Despite the cause of the last decade’s relative lull, both men do agree that 2012 has seen an unusually large number of mass shootings in the United States. But Duwe says it’s impossible to know now whether or not this is an anomaly, such as in 1999, or a growing problem. “Whether it the start of a new trend in increasing mass public shootings remains to be seen,” he says.

Though there is disagreement on the media’s role in creating copycats, one undisputed fact is that sensationalist news coverage leads people to believe that public mass violence is an escalating problem. Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, says that there is “a perception of increase whenever we have a major event like the tragedy in Newtown.” The truth is that school shootings have declined dramatically since the 1990s, Cornell says.

The continual “31 school shootings since Columbine” news refrain that followed the attacks in Newtown is in itself an admission that it is the sensational, and not the historical, that informs our media framing of this and many other problems. The killings at Columbine High came at the end of a decade that saw an upsurge of school shootings, says Duwe. Though April 20, 1999 was certainly “the worst,” there were highly publicized multiple-casualty shootings, and much national debate, in the years before. Before there was Littleton there was Pearl, and West Paducah, and Jonesboro, and Springfield.

“Columbine” was not the beginning of the problem journalism thinks it is addressing when it makes these claims. It was the beginning of a new phase of media attention. In its precedent, we see not the ur-school shooting, but the supremacy of body count, of bloodiness, of images of Daniel Rohrbough lying lifeless on concrete and Patrick Ireland flinging himself from those big, wide windows. We see the permanent cultural impact of live “standoff” footage and of cinematically spooky perpetrators following a simplistic storyline. When journalism tells these stories, it is partly telling the story of itself.

Amidst the renewed and resounding cries for new gun policy in this country, there are also angry calls for a new journalism. People across the nation have recoiled from images of TV reporters interviewing little kids. Disgusted by the spectacle in Connecticut, Californian Kim Simon, who as a teenager lost a friend in a 1993 stabbing that killed one and injured a second boy, wrote an angry open letter to the press about how reporters treated her that day. An anonymous commenter claiming to be from Newtown wrote a similarly incensed message the day after the murders, demanding that some of the reporters there think about what their souls are truly worth. The words of Park Dietz and Roger Ebert are everywhere, calling for an end to news as spectacle. Unreal Morgan Freeman is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore.

Corey DePooter. That was the name of the boy whose mother sat beside me that night at Leawood Elementary School. We were there to pick up my mom, but she insisted on staying late to help those last parents search for their kids. By then, of course, there was little that could be done. There is little any of us can do once the shots have been fired. But we can insist that the debates that follow actually address the problem — and we can demand that our news media not endanger more lives. We can reject the supremacy of body count and stand for the endurance of memory. We can tell Not Morgan Freeman that yes, we do remember the name of someone who died at Columbine that day. He was Corey DePooter, and he was 17.

By Rin Kelly

Rin Kelly is a writer and photographer from Denver, Colorado. She is a culture editor at Los Angeles music publication L.A. Record and a freelance investigative journalist. She is a 2012 graduate of Columbia Journalism School's Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and is writing a novel about media gone mad.