The Humane Way to Cover School-Shooting Anniversaries
Twenty years after Columbine, reporters have plenty of experience covering these tragedies. But balancing the demands of journalism, human curiosity, and the well-being of survivors remains a work in progress.
As the first anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting approached, a group of students, teachers, and parents addressed reporters at a forum organized by the local school district. Sue Petrone, who lost her 15-year-old son, Danny Rohrbough, in the suburban-Colorado massacre that took the lives of 12 students and a teacher on April 20, 1999, appealed to journalists to focus on the victims and to be sensitive to the wishes and needs of the survivors.
“[I] respectfully request that the media not broadcast any footage from April 20,” Petrone said. “That would be footage showing students running from the school, students on stretchers, and murdered students.” Finally, Petrone and the others asked that the killers’ names be omitted from anniversary coverage.
The requests were, to some extent, honored. Nearly a year into reporting on what the journalist Dave Cullen has described as the first televised school shooting, and hoping to repair a relationship damaged by factual errors and accusations of sensationalism, broadcast networks decided to pool their anniversary coverage. Reporters agreed to stay away from Columbine on April 20 and instead attended a pre-anniversary tour of the school and an invitation-only meeting with victims’ families. But some news editors and executives were willing to bend only so much. “I feel for the parents who don’t want those images shown on television,” a producer with ABC’s Good Morning America said in the 2003 documentary Covering Columbine, “but I think it will be impossible to do that, for any television outlet to tell what happened without showing what happened.”
A CNN vice president told the filmmakers, “As far as using the names of the people who committed the crime, to me, I understand why that bothers the folks who lost children there, but that just is not something I could go along with.”
Twenty years and more than 230 school shootings later, reporters and media consumers have plenty—in fact, too much—experience covering and sharing news about these tragedies. But balancing the demands of journalism, human curiosity, and the well-being of survivors remains a work in progress. Headlines such as “Does the Media Have a Problem With Coverage of Mass Shootings?” have a tendency to appear after these events, as do warnings to not let “voluntary restraint … cross the line into censorship,” as a USA Today editorial put it in 2015. Still, evidence suggests that coverage is improving, and every new shooting brings a fresh round of guidelines for interviewing survivors, identifying shooters, minimizing the risk of copycats, and using social media as a reporting tool.
Missing from much of this coverage, some journalists and media critics argue, is an emphasis on solutions journalism, and in particular substantive examinations into how mass shootings can be prevented. Last November, after a gunman killed 12 people and injured 18 more at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, Lois Beckett, a reporter who covers gun violence for The Guardian, tweeted: “In the face of an increasing number of mass shootings, media outlets give intense coverage to the terror and the trauma of these events, but almost no coverage of solutions, including solutions ordinary people can use.” In another tweet, Beckett wrote, “I am sick of media outlets making a case for hopelessness and stalemate after the latest mass shooting. There are ways to prevent some of these shootings. But people don’t know about them because WE DON’T COVER THEM.”
An example of what Beckett was advocating for could be found following a January 2018 school shooting in Benton, Kentucky, in which the 15-year-old shooter reportedly used a handgun taken from his parents’ bedroom closet. The day after the shooting, the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism cooperative that covers Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, published a story on child-access prevention laws, which hold gun owners liable should children access their firearms. The ReSource reported that the laws work in states that have them, and in some cases have reduced accidental gun deaths among children by as much as half. Kentucky, the ReSource noted, is not one of those states. Last August, The Washington Post followed up with an investigation into the enforcement of these laws.
Anniversaries present additional opportunities for media outlets to examine the role and influence of their coverage, but these often come at a cost to survivors. Even the most well-intentioned and journalistically sound stories can prove painful to people already feeling increased levels of anxiety. For many in the Columbine community, the days and weeks leading up to April 20 are especially difficult. The Columbine teacher Kiki Leyba and the former principal Frank DeAngelis have both reported crashing their cars in April, with DeAngelis having done so six times in the years following the shooting. “I always tell people that April is a hard month for me,” the Columbine teacher Paula Reed told NPR last year.
Linda Mauser, whose son Daniel died at Columbine, published a blog post following the shooting’s fifth anniversary in which she described the day as “a little tougher” than previous anniversaries because of the increased media coverage. “The media and the public has such a fascination with certain numbered anniversaries of events (especially 1, 5, 10, 20 … ),” Mauser wrote, “so I think we can expect there won’t be any significant media attention on Columbine again until the 10th anniversary … That’s a relief. We simply don’t like the painful reminders that come with the media attention.”
In Columbine, Cullen’s best-selling book on the shooting and its aftermath, the author writes that after the fifth anniversary, “many survivors began to think in terms of how many events were left to slog through. Only two remained now: the 10-year and the dedication of the memorial [in 2007]. Surely they wouldn’t have to come back in 20.”
No doubt, a similar hope surfaces every year in communities across the country, as survivors in places such as Parkland, Florida; Santa Fe, Texas; Roseburg, Oregon; Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; and Newtown, Connecticut, brace for the first, second, fifth, 10th, or 15th anniversary of their own worst days. At the same time, in the best newsrooms, journalists remind themselves and others to “be careful to never turn away from other people’s grief, to never tune it out or grow numb to it,” as one columnist wrote earlier this year on the first anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
“There is today, tomorrow and 20 years from now,” Joe Samaha, who lost his daughter Reema in the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, told me in February 2018. “That’s some of the stuff that we thought about, that some of our families had the ability to think about: ‘What is going to happen to my brain 20 years from now?’ Let me tell you: It’s never the same, neither the heart nor the brain.”
Or, as Cullen quotes Linda Mauser as saying in Columbine: “When your child dies, it’s always recent.”