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.