The Columbine Blueprint

As the first school shooting to become a nationwide media spectacle, Columbine shaped a generation of mass-consumed tragedies.

Kevin Moloney / Liaison / Getty / ERIC GAY / AP / The Atlantic

On that day two decades ago, news spread from Columbine quickly, and widely. By the time the killers concluded their shooting spree by turning their guns on themselves, less than an hour after firing their first shots, the attack had already become a media event unprecedented in the history of mass shootings. Local news stations and CNN began broadcasting the scene live to viewers around the country about 40 minutes into the attack. The coverage continued unbroken for hours. The story made the front page of The New York Times the next day and remained there for a week and a half; it was a constant presence in the local Denver Post well into summer. No other school shooting had reached a nationwide audience so fast, or taken such a hold on the news cycle.

American students started bringing guns to school and firing on their teachers and peers as early as 1840, and by the late 1990s, they had begun doing so multiple times a year in classrooms around the country—more frequently even than in the present day. But Columbine was both one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States up to that point and the first one to become a national spectacle. It set the blueprint for a generation of attacks. “[Reporters] really wrote the script as they went,” says Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor at SUNY Oswego and a co-author of Columbine, 20 Years Later and Beyond. “There wasn’t a template at the time for how these events are covered … Columbine created the script of crisis coverage.”

It also created a model for would-be killers. This week, law enforcement in Colorado searched for an armed 18-year-old woman who made multiple threats in the Denver area and was “infatuated” with the Columbine attack; the hunt ended when she was found dead. She was far from the first person to draw inspiration from the attack: In an analysis of 12 school shootings that took place from 1999 to 2007, Ralph W. Larkin, a professor of sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, found that eight of the shooters “directly referred to Columbine.” A 2014 analysis conducted by ABC News found even more extensive influence, identifying “at least 17 attacks and another 36 alleged plots or serious threats against schools since the assault on Columbine High School that can be tied to the 1999 massacre.” Among those who studied and admired the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were the perpetrators of two of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook in 2012.

Studies have shown mass shootings to be contagious, suggesting that inspiration to commit one can spread via articles and television segments. Researchers hypothesize that potential killers see the devastation unfold and the shooters made famous in the national media, and become more likely to act on their own homicidal impulses. In this way, the Columbine killers may have continued to infect and inspire perpetrators of violence for 20 years, aided by the massive attention the media gave them.

Schildkraut lays out some of the beats of “the narrative pattern” developed by Columbine reporters: Begin with live reports from the scene, repeatedly air “images of people running out of school buildings with their hands over their heads,” then bring on the experts to offer their assessments, loop footage from “the law-enforcement press conferences,” and finally shift, as “the scene quiets down and is cleared by law enforcement,” to identifying victims and “talking about things such as societal and legislative changes.” Developing technology has introduced new elements to the narrative, such as social-media posts and cellphone calls from people trapped inside the building while the shooting is still ongoing. But the basic pattern has remained largely static for the last 20 years, as has the amount of time it takes before the news cycle starts to turn away: about one week.

What has also persisted, Schildkraut says, is the “process of irresponsible reporting” that grew in the immediate aftermath of Columbine. The constant presence of cameras and reporters in the face of tragedy “left people to grieve in a fishbowl, with all of these lenses posted up on them,” she says. “I think there’s a lack of mindfulness about what people experience.” Writing about the attack for Newsweek on the 19th anniversary last year, one Columbine survivor remembered how she and her classmates had to learn “to hide from the cameras as we cried on each other’s shoulders.” My colleague Adrienne LaFrance covered the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 and reported on the Connecticut town’s frustration with the crushing media presence. Dozens of television cameras blocked sidewalks and staked out funeral homes while back-to-back services for murdered 6-year-olds took place. “Reporters are stalking us,” one Newtown resident told her. “It’s like, Fuck you. Go away. Leave us the fuck alone.”

Also irresponsible, Schildkraut says, is how the coverage has treated perpetrators. The early Columbine coverage was heavily focused on the killers: In a 2016 study, researchers found that the two shooters were mentioned more than twice as often as their 13 victims combined in early Denver Post stories on the attack, and six and a half times as often in New York Times articles. The news ran a constant cycle of profiles, conversations, and debates, all attempting to answer the same core questions: Who were Harris and Klebold? What went wrong in their upbringing? What drove them to kill?

In fact, though Columbine came to be seen as the archetypal American school shooting, the killers didn’t intend for it to be seen as a shooting at all. They planned it as a massive bombing, a domestic terrorist attack in the mold of Oklahoma City that would claim hundreds of lives, decimate the high school, and launch them into infamy for inflicting, in Klebold’s words, “the most deaths in U.S. history.”

The coverage’s focus on them posthumously granted Harris and Klebold the macabre celebrity they had hoped for—if not quite in the way they’d imagined. They had envisioned themselves going down in history alongside the likes of Attila the Hun or the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, as the ruthless killers of hundreds of innocents. With their choice of venue—their suburban high school—and the failure of core pieces of their plan, they inadvertently gave rise to a different narrative and a different kind of terror: that of the disaffected teenage shooter taking revenge.

Within a day of the shooting, this narrative was more or less set. By most accounts, the killers were outcasts, goths, loners, targets of bullying by more popular students, and members of, as described in a New York Times article, “a group of misfits who called themselves the Trench Coat Mafia.” They were said to listen to “satanic music” and be obsessed with Nazi Germany. Reports held that they had planned their attack for Hitler’s birthday, with targets in mind among the student body: athletes, students of color, Christians—groups that had ostracized them, or that they saw as inferior. A Denver Post article published three days after the attack opened by likening it to other recent shootings: “Pearl, Miss. West Paducah, Ky. Springfield, Ore. And now Jefferson County, Colo. One common denominator in all these schoolyard shootings: bullies and misfits.”

This account was widely recounted throughout the spring of 1999 and lingers as a common perception of the attack 20 years later, but later reporting showed it to be rife with inaccuracies. The killers wore trench coats during the shooting, but they weren’t members of the school’s “Trench Coat Mafia.” They weren’t loners, but instead belonged to a close-knit group of friends. They didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson music, as some reports claimed. Harris did become enamored with, in his words, “German shit” in the lead-up to the shooting, and began quoting Hitler, along with Nietzsche and Freud, and listening to German rock. But the attack wasn’t planned for Hitler’s birthday. Originally, the killers intended for it to take place a day earlier, on the fourth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. They didn’t target specific groups—not athletes, not students of color, not Christians. They went into the school hoping to indiscriminately kill everyone inside and anyone who came to help.

Details about the bombs and the shooters’ true interests and personalities were included in many early accounts of the attack, even though they conflicted with the dominant narrative of Columbine as a targeted shooting carried out in response to bullying. But the myth that the killers were tormented outcasts taking revenge prevailed. “Once you put out an inaccuracy like that, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reel that back in,” Schildkraut says. The attack engendered a litany of anti-bullying campaigns in schools around the country. And more recent shootings have prompted similar responses.

In a New York Times op-ed last year, Isabelle Robinson, one of the survivors of the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, challenged the bullying narrative. She remembered the former student charged with the shooting once throwing an apple at her, though she had never met him, and her uncomfortable experience tutoring him as part of the school’s peer-counseling program. “I am writing this because of the disturbing number of comments I’ve read that go something like this: Maybe if [the alleged killer’s] classmates and peers had been a little nicer to him, the shooting at Stoneman Douglas would never have occurred,” she wrote. “No amount of kindness or compassion alone would have changed the person that [he] is and was, or the horrendous actions he perpetrated.”

Less than three months later, the brother of the teenager charged with carrying out the attack launched an anti-bullying program, citing bullying and isolation as root causes of his brother’s violent actions. He admitted to bullying his brother himself when they were younger; reports have not confirmed that the alleged shooter was similarly targeted by his peers. Regardless, school shootings cannot be traced to any singular experience or trait in the perpetrators, as an FBI report outlined last year, and most perpetrators didn’t live in extreme social isolation before their attacks.

In recent years, some survivors, news organizations, and public figures have made an effort to change the narrative by shifting attention away from killers, refusing to say their names or show their pictures. After a shooter killed 50 people and wounded dozens more at a New Zealand mosque last month, for instance, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, vowed not to contribute to his infamy. “He sought many things from his act of terror,” she said, “but one was notoriety. That is why you will never hear me mention his name.”

A number of researchers have suggested that minimizing focus on the killers after attacks in this way could help combat the contagion of mass shootings. “[Reports] focus so extensively on the perpetrators that we are essentially rewarding them for killing people and incentivizing people who show a familiar like-mindedness,” says Schildkraut. “We’re not focusing on the people who are taken—we’re giving the credit to the people who did the taking, and that just seems very dangerous to me.”

She says that “some stations and some outlets” have improved their coverage strategies since Columbine, “but by and large, there are still tremendous issues”—including the disproportionate exposure of killers and the harassment of communities where shootings occur. New technologies pose still more challenges to responsible disclosure.

Social media have enabled the harassment of survivors and victims’ families by the conspiracy theorists who began falsely claiming after the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School that mass shootings were “false flags” and survivors were really “crisis actors.” And the same venues that connect communities with harassers also provide a more direct link between shooters and mass audiences, which further complicates the effort to deny them the infamy they crave. The contents of writings and videos left behind by the Columbine killers reached the public only through the filters of law enforcement and reporters. But the New Zealand killer was able to post links to his 74-page manifesto to 8chan and Twitter and to live-stream his attack on Facebook.

These mass-consumed shootings represent one of the enduring legacies of Columbine for a new generation. Harris and Klebold hoped to leave behind a different story, but this is the narrative that grew out of their killings; it’s one that continues to terrorize the world, 20 years later.