Dave Cullen, a decorated journalist, wrote Columbine over a period of ten years with the intention of “setting [the facts] right.” He describes the “great media blunders” that plagued the initial coverage of the Columbine shooting: as “the narrative unfold[ed] on television, the media was not about to [wait]” for accurate facts. This reliance on speculation and conjecture created a new kind of media sensationalism. It fed on the accounts of frightened, disoriented victims emerging from the building, combined with rumor and hearsay, in order to create a rapidly-escalating firestorm of inaccuracy and sensationalism that changed the American news cycle forever.
The gross misinformation that infiltrated the media coverage of the attack led to a slew of common misconceptions that, despite being debunked, are still pervasive today. The media reported that the murderers targeted jocks, that they had been horrendously bullied, that they were gay, that they were members of the “dangerous” Goth subculture which romanticized death and the grotesque, that they were members of the Trench Coat Mafia (a group of students at Columbine who wore trench coats and considered themselves outcasts), and that there was a vast conspiracy whose many hidden members still needed to be rustled up. None of these things were true, but the misinformation proliferated due to its shock value, and false rumors continue to be part of the “mythology” of the Columbine attacks today.
Sensationalism in reporting occurs when accuracy erodes in favor of shocking, provocative storytelling meant to hook an audience, and Columbine was prone to sensationalism both by the very nature of the tragedy and because it happened during a decade marked by high-profile media scandals that reinvented the way Americans expected to consume their news. The O.J. Simpson trial, the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsey, the Lewinsky Scandal, and the several high-profile school shootings in the years leading up to Columbine all confirmed it: Americans wanted their coverage live, dramatic, and in living color. The sensationalist coverage of the Columbine shootings sacrificed fact for fiction, both out of a desperation to deliver Americans the information they wanted, and, of course, to create riveting, nonstop TV (which Eric anticipated as part of his planning).
It wasn’t until two weeks after Columbine that the New York Times printed an issue that did not feature the massacre as its page-one story. The attack’s capacity for shock value was as bottomless as the media’s capacity to yield answers was fruitless. The repetition of misinformation created enduring public misconceptions about the facts of the attack, and also triggered survivors who could not handle the incessant news cycle, the melodramatic headlines, and the gratuitous reproductions of the violence that had taken the lives of their classmates. Cullen writes that in any large-scale tragedy, there are instances of misreported facts and foggy details, but the nature of our modern technological landscape ensures—and ensured even in 1999—that inaccuracies were magnified by a sensationalist, breaking-news approach to unraveling the story. Furthermore, Cullen argues that Columbine coverage was unique in the magnitude of its bad facts, which were, in Cullen’s opinion, so widely-believed precisely because of the incomprehensible scale of violence and hatred that marked the incident.
Media: Misinformation and Sensationalism ThemeTracker
Media: Misinformation and Sensationalism Quotes in Columbine
The fundamental experience for most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view. We would learn the truth about Columbine, but we would not learn it today. The narrative unfolding on television looked nothing like the killers’ plan. It looked only moderately like what was actually occurring. It would take months for investigators to piece together what had gone on inside. Motive would take longer to unravel. It would be years before the detective team would explain why. The public couldn’t wait that long. The media was not about to. They speculated.
For investigators, the [discovery of the] big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of the attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily it had been a bombing that failed. [When] officials announced the discovery, it instigated a new media shock wave. But, curiously, journalists failed to grasp the implications. They saw what happened at Columbine as a shooting and the killers as outcasts targeting jocks. They [continued to] filter every new development through that lens.
The crowds kept growing, but the students among them dwindled. Wednesday afternoon they poured their hearts out to reporters. Wednesday evening they watched a grotesque portrait of their school on television. It was a charitable picture at first, but it grew steadily more sinister as the week wore on. The media grew fond of the adjective “toxic.” Apparently, Columbine was a horrible place. It was terrorized by a band of reckless jock lords and ruled by an aristocracy of snotty rich white kids in the latest Abercrombie & Fitch line. Some of that was true—which is to say, it was high school. But Columbine came to embody everything noxious about adolescence in America.
Because dyads, murderous pairs who feed off each other, account for only a fraction of mass murderers, little research has been conducted on them. We know that the partnerships tend to be asymmetrical. An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair. The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill. “It takes heat and cold to make a tornado,” Dr. Fuselier is fond of saying. Eric craved heat, but he [easily grew bored and] couldn’t sustain it. Dylan was a volcano. You could never tell when he might erupt.
Eric didn’t have the political agenda of a terrorist, but he had adopted terrorist tactics. Sociology professor Mark Juergensmeyer identified the central characteristic of terrorism as “performance violence.” Terrorists design events “to be spectacular in their viciousness and awesome in their destructive power. Such instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater.”
Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile. There is no profile. Attackers came from all ethnic, economic, and social classes. The bulk came from solid two-parent homes. Most had no criminal record or history of violence. The two biggest myths were that shooters were loners and that they “snapped.” A staggering 93 percent planned their attack in advance. “The path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way,” the FBI report said. Cultural influences appeared weak. Many perps shared a crucial experience: 98 percent had suffered a loss or failure they perceived as serious—anything from getting fired to blowing a test or getting dumped. Of course, everyone suffers loss and failure, but for these kids, the trauma seemed to set anger in motion. This was certainly true in Columbine; Dylan viewed his entire life as failure, and Eric’s arrest accelerated his anger.
“More rage, more rage!” Eric demanded. He motioned with his arms. “Keep building it.”
Dylan hurled another Ericism: “It’s humans I hate.”
Eric raised Arlene, and aimed her at the camera. “You guys will all die, and it will be fucking soon,” he said. “You all need to die. We need to die, too.”
The boys made it clear, repeatedly, that they planned to die in battle. Their legacy would live. “We’re going to kick-start a revolution,” Eric said. “I declared war on the human race and war is what it is.”
He apologized to his mom. “I really am sorry about this, but war’s war.”
[Eight years later] at [the] Virginia Tech [shooting in 2007,] Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people, plus himself, and injured seventeen. The press proclaimed it a new American record. They shuddered at the idea of turning school shootings into a competition, then awarded Cho the title.
After most tragedies, I confer with some of the great minds on mass murder. That’s a privilege. When I write on this subject, I’m responsible for every opinion, but I can rarely claim them as original ideas. Mostly, I’m the messenger. It can be invigorating, getting inside these killers’ heads, hashing out ways to outmaneuver them. But the killers have stayed maddeningly ahead. It’s begun to feel like failure, failure, and failure for a decade and a half. I used to get angry for an hour or to, then I’d brush that aside to get to work. Lately, it just rages. Because we are not powerless, especially we in the media. We are just acting like it.
There’s another pernicious myth: that Eric and Dylan succeeded. Measured by [the shooters’] own standards, Columbine was a colossal failure so unrecognizable as terrorism that we ranked them first among the school shooters they ridiculed. Killers keep trying to relive the glory and elation at Columbine. There was none.