What the Media Has Learned Since Columbine

Last week, CNN host Brianna Keilar found herself for the second time in less than a week, guiding viewers through the grim ritual of trying and failing to make sense of another mass shooting.

This time there were 10 dead in a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. Just days earlier, she interviewed a survivor of the rampage at massage parlors in the Atlanta area. In 2019, Ms. Keilar reported on the consecutive shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. In 2018, she spoke to relatives of students killed in the Parkland, Florida shootings.

Broadcast journalists like Ms. Keilar (40) have now spent most of their reporting career recording an endless, uniquely American horror show: the accidental gun massacre. She was CNN’s first female journalist to arrive on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. In 1999, she was a freshman watching the network’s coverage of a disaster at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

All of this went through Ms. Keilar’s head on Tuesday as she paused on the air after a correspondent report on Rikki Olds, the 25-year-old Boulder supermarket manager who was murdered. “I just wonder, can you count the number of times you’ve told a story like this?” she asked, her voice began. “Did you lose the count?”

“I just had this terrible feeling of déjà vu,” Ms. Keilar said in an interview as she remembered the emotional broadcast that was rife on social media. “If you treat this all the time, it is possible to become deaf. Because it somehow becomes inconspicuous. This thing, which is totally unacceptable and should be extraordinary, goes unnoticed. “

Journalists who have covered multiple mass shootings say these moments are borne by sadness, frustration and, for some, a sense of futility in the face of a somber kind of repetition. There is now a well-developed playbook that network correspondents and newspaper writers, including many New York Times reporters, turn to when traveling to another affected city. Talk to those who knew the victims and the shooter. attend vigils and funerals; Obtain information from the police and the courts. Match the necessary coverage of the attack with the potential that too much attention can be viewed as glorifying the attacker.

“I call it the checklist: the shock, the horror, the outrage,” said Lester Holt, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News”, in an interview. “It’s all so familiar and everyone knows the role to play and the questions to be answered and how these things work. Because, unfortunately, they are very predictable. “

Mr. Holt, who reported on shootings in El Paso; Las Vegas; Newtown, Conn .; Orlando; Santa Fe, Texas; San Bernardino, CA; and Sutherland Springs, Texas – a long but by no means exhaustive list – said it was considering violence this month in Colorado and Georgia amid the country’s slow return to normal after the coronavirus pandemic.

“Shootings,” he said, “are unfortunately part of what normalcy looks like in this country.”

Journalists covering Columbine may not have thought about how routine the event they were covering would become. For his book on the Columbine shooting, Dave Cullen analyzed media coverage and found that in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Littleton, network news broadcasts ran over 40 segments, CNN and Fox News had historically high ratings, and The Times mentioned Columbine on its Front pages for almost two weeks in a row.

In an interview, Mr Cullen said he believed reporters had picked up useful lessons since that first episode. “In 1999 we took everything we heard as the gospel. The assumption came true very quickly, ”he said.

After Columbine, the news organizations were quick to formulate what Mr. Cullen called “myths” about the shooting: The killers were bullied Goth children taking revenge on popular Scots. Much of that narrative came from improper procurement, and Mr Cullen said he saw journalists now being more cautious about drawing premature conclusions about an attacker’s motivations. “We take things with a grain of salt,” he said. “In 1999 there was no salt.”

Reporters have learned to focus more on victims than on perpetrators. It was a shift that was noisy on social media as readers on Twitter begged news organizations to focus more on the people killed in the Atlanta shootings, as well as the rise in crimes against Americans from Asia and not on the presumption of the gunman’s motive.

Mr. Cullen recalled a journalists’ conference in 2005 where he expressed the idea that reporters shouldn’t focus too much on the shooter. “I was practically yelling from the stage,” he said. “Now when I mention the names of a shooter from an older case on TV, I get angry tweets from people. Public expectations have changed. “

Journalists are usually expected to put their feelings aside when gathering uninterested facts about a tragic event. But it is not always possible and Mr Holt said it was important “to report these things as unusual, as abnormal”.

“I think it’s okay to be a little pissed off,” said Holt of NBC Nightly News. “As a journalist, it is not an editorial position to be angry or angry about mass murder, about people spending their day shopping or being knocked down by a stranger. It’s okay to get upset about it. “

Gayle King, the “CBS This Morning” anchor, described an experience of “being kicked in the stomach all over again”.

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“We almost know how this story will play out,” she said, referring to a phrase she attributed to Steve Hartman, a CBS colleague: “We will mourn, we will pray, we will repeat.” . ”

“I am concerned that we will become desensitized,” she added. “I don’t want us to be desensitized to it.”

And some reporters have to endure and report it repeatedly in their own communities.

Chris Vanderveen, 47, was there as a young reporter after the Columbine shootings. He was there to cover filming at the Aurora Cinema in 2012. And he had to lead a team of reporters during Monday’s boulder shooting.

“When I was in journalism school I thought I was going to cover other things,” Vanderveen, the director of coverage for KUSA, Denver’s NBC subsidiary, said in an interview.

He remembered painful lessons he and his colleagues had learned from the Columbine shootings. Several reporters covering the event developed close relationships with people in the community, including the victims’ parents. He said that helped them ask an important question: “What can we learn as journalists if we don’t add to the grief?”

After Aurora, KUSA invited family members of victims to the station. You weren’t there for an interview. “No story, nothing,” he said. “Just to help us with our reporting.”

Mr Vanderveen said that through these conversations the station decided not to keep showing the same mug shot of the gunman over and over again. And he said he continued to think about the role the news media played in potentially inspiring future killers. “I worry that there are people who want recognition for a variety of reasons, and then they see this heavy emphasis on a person who keeps showing their picture,” he said.

On Monday, Mr Vanderveen was in a meeting about an investigation story when news came from a producer that there had been gunfire at a grocery store in Boulder. The grim experience set in quickly.

“Every journalist goes through difficult stories,” he said. “We are not alone in this. It is just unfortunate that we have had a number of these in Colorado who, for lack of a better term, have given us training on how to try to deal with these things. But it still gets terrible. “

His reporting team may be one of the few people in the news media covering the aftermath of the massacre, which he knows from experience will be a difficult task. National reporters stayed in the area for months after Columbine. They stayed a few weeks after Aurora, he said. He suspects it will only be a few days before the national news outlets leave Boulder.

“Maybe the country is fed up with them,” he said. “I’m fed up with them. If I never have to report any of those damn things again, I’ll be fine. “

“But nothing changes,” he added. “This drives me crazy. Nothing changes. “

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