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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

Lessons Learned from School Shootings Past   

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

The first TV cameras reached Columbine High School while the massacre was still unfolding, and within 24 hours, the tony Denver suburb was the center of a media circus of O.J. proportions.

Many journalists--veterans of school shootings past in Pearl, Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Springfield, Oregon--knew the pull of a story in which America's future wipes out its own. The tale had to be told. The question was how.

When key information is unavailable in the first confused days of a tragedy, journalists rush to fill the newshole. That can lead to rash judgments or give legitimacy to crackpot theories. In Pearl, the monster was fed with stories of a satanic cult. In Jonesboro, the villain was the Southern gun culture. Now Littleton, Colorado, would have to speak for the sins of its youth.

Despite the predictable media frenzy and subsequent media scolding, many experts agree that the overall coverage of the Littleton shooting was better than in previous instances, a result of lessons learned in Pearl and Jonesboro.

Cathy Trost, director of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families at the University of Maryland, notes that in the face of these tragedies, the best thing reporters can do is to try to explain the situation and put it into context. To the reporters' credit, "there was a much quicker attempt [to do that] this time," she says.

She cites second-day stories on wide-ranging topics, such as how parents should talk to their children about the shootings, the implications of cliques and the consequences of bullying behavior, as thoughtful and helpful pieces.

But, Trost adds, there is room for improvement. Some of the breaking broadcast coverage of students fleeing the school building was excessive, she says. And journalists didn't emphasize quickly enough that the shooting did not indicate a rising tide of school violence.

LynNell Hancock, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism who teaches a course on covering children's issues, agrees that overall, coverage was much better than that of previous school shootings. "There was a little more sobriety on the part of the press when it came to looking for quick and easy answers," she says.

In the Arkansas murders, in particular, "there was far more tendency to pump up the shock factor and to weigh in with the easy answers on the first and second day," Hancock says, "even though people really didn't know anything."

In Pearl, the cult theory gave worried residents an easy, if simplistic, way to explain the violence. In Jonesboro, placing the blame on Southern gun culture insulted and infuriated those who lived in the area.

Littleton residents have had a different experience, perhaps because they, too, have learned from the past. After some of the previous schoolyard shootings, the killers' families speculated publicly about what went wrong. In Littleton, one killer's parents retained a lawyer before SWAT teams had even entered the school and recovered the bodies.

Many of Littleton's victims have been willing to talk, and the media have taken full advantage. The major networks devoted specials to the shootings, at least one major newspaper sat down with a handful of students for a rap session about teen culture, and the top newsmagazines garnered interviews with friends of the killers and their families.

But one media watcher argues that the Littleton coverage has been marked by too many details and images, doing a disservice to the victims and perhaps encouraging copycat crimes.

"Whatever they're learning, they're not learning quickly enough," says Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana.

Elliott, who has worked as an ethics coach in newsrooms across the country, says just because material is available or an interview is obtainable doesn't mean the media should use it. The public doesn't need to see pictures of a boy with gunshot wounds to his head dangling from a school window, or hear frantic calls for help on police tapes, or read about a dying man's last hours in minute detail, she says. Littleton's story is compelling enough without the extras. "The rest of the drama makes it pornography," Elliott says.

"My sense is that news organizations went with the more graphic stuff because they went with the argument that the other guys are going to do it. 'Hey, Mom, everybody's doing it' didn't work when we were 8 years old," she says. "It shouldn't work when we're professional adults."

There's a downside to searching for answers, too. "Kid culture" has taken the brunt of the blame for the event, Elliott says, but that's an easy way out. Instead of just offering simple explanations, journalists should explore why people need those explanations.

Even as millions watched hysterical students fleeing the school building, journalists were struggling to answer, "Why?" The two killers were labeled white supremacists who targeted minorities in their shooting spree, black-clothed anti-socials called the "Trenchcoat Mafia," members of the "Goth" subculture and/or violent video game addicts who used the Internet as hell's playground.

Subsequent reports toned down the hysterics--and even discounted some of these theories entirely--but the damage had been done. The country became hypersensitive to behavior that in most cases amounted to teenagers just being teenagers. Some schools singled out students who shared the shooters' profiles. Some parents plaintively asked their black-clad offspring, "What's the difference between you and them?"

But the tendency to place blame would manifest itself whether or not the media report it, says Bob Steele, director of the media ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Journalists are only doing their jobs when they accurately and fairly inform the public about the range of views and concerns in a story of this magnitude, he says.

"When an event of this nature happens, it's inescapable that people are looking for reasons why and how something happened," Steele says. "The goal is to get as close to the truth as possible."

The media "can serve society by providing meaningful information upon which people can process the horrific event and then take what actions are appropriate," he adds.

Anyone who reflexively criticizes journalists for playing the Blame Game should remember that finding the answer to "why" is the equivalent of the Holy Grail for journalists, says Steven Gorelick, sociologist and adjunct professor of communications and journalism at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

"This group of kids and how they dressed was scapegoated early on. However fair or unfair that scapegoating may have been, it was a legitimate news story that has to be taken with the appropriate skepticism and caution," Gorelick says.

It would be "well-intentioned but misguided," he says, to withhold anything from a grieving community that needs as much information as it can get.

Even journalists are human. One of the hardest things for anyone to accept or understand is a random, unforgiving act, Gorelick explains, and the search for answers in the face of tragedy is normal.

"Both the press and the public need to come to see that we're dealing with human beings here, who don't have some special immunization from trauma," Gorelick says. "It's not an ignorant or venal impulse to want to ask, 'Why?' "