Blog: The Educated Reporter

On 20th Anniversary of Columbine, Rethinking How We Cover School Shootings

April 20th marks a somber milestone: two decades since what author Dave Cullen has called the first school shooting to be televised.

The ongoing debate over how to implement preventative measures without turning schoolhouses into fortresses means education reporters will continue to focus on this seminal tragedy and its ripple effects long after the anniversary date passes.

Headlines this week about a possible threat posed by one obsessed young woman raised again the spectre of the “Columbine effect.” In 2015, Mother Jones was the first to extensively report on this phenomenon, revealing recent school shooters’ – and would-be shooters’ – fascination with the 1999 perpetrators. In advance of this week’s anniversary, the magazine’s national editor, Mark Follman, argued “It’s time to bury the Columbine shooters.” “With April 20 approaching, public attention should focus on the resiliency of the Columbine survivors and community, and on lessons learned about safety and prevention,” Follman wrote.

Handle with care

The continuing repetition of traumatic school and gun violence around the country have sparked calls for journalists to be especially empathetic and careful when covering such incidents. Writing for The Atlantic, Jake Cline noted that anniversary stories can be a trigger for survivors, and that the media must tread humanely on this hallowed ground.

Earlier this year I outlined a proposal for education journalists to take the lead in their newsrooms and push for more transparent policies around naming shooters. As researcher Adam Lankford of the University of Arkansas told me, it’s possible to provide nuanced, in-depth reporting even while severely restricting the use of a shooter’s name. Doing so can help diminish the spotlight on the shooters, many of whom – particularly younger males — are motivated in part by fame.

Such coverage is “facilitating and fueling subcultures with people who are disturbed and troubled,” Lankford said. While most of those individuals won’t commit shootings, he says, irresponsible media coverage is “normalizing the behavior and cultivating a fan base for those who do.”

Writing for The Grade, Alexander Russo urges reporters to be particularly cautious with statistics on school shootings. That’s solid advice, and it’s the focus of solid deep dives into questionable data by reporters like NPR’s Anya Kamanetz.

For more help on covering these issues responsibly, check out the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. The Poynter Institute also offers best practices for reporters covering gun violence. And for talking with students and families who have experienced trauma, the Dart Center on Journalism & Trauma is a good place to start.

Story ideas: safety spending and staff

One way to mark the anniversary is to take a look at what your community is doing to safeguard students. Many journalists are tracking proposals to arm teachers (Education Week digs into the debate here), and reporting on analyses of the spending on “hardening” schools.

Others are looking at the human beings taking on the responsibility for safeguarding students. Writing for Education Week, Denisa R. Superville* looked at the bond that connects principals who have experienced school shootings — and how they have tried to help those who sadly have come after them. 

In a profile of John McDonald, school safety chief for Jefferson County Public Schools, Jessica Contrera of the Washington Post described a nearly daily game of cat and mouse ranging from the lookie-loos who show up at the school “to pay their respects” to emotionally troubled individuals who try and gain access to the campus. One of the reasons Columbine has become a source of such pilgrimages is the edifice hasn’t changed much from what so many of us saw — and still see — in those haunting photos and video clips. From the Washington Post:

“In ‘99,” McDonald explained, “there was a thought at the time — and it wasn’t a wrong thought — that if we tear the school down, the killers will have won.” He sometimes wishes they had chosen differently. “We didn’t ever envision what it would become 20 years later,” he said.

More resources

At EWA’s 72nd National Seminar in Baltimore next month, we’ll be looking at many aspects of the gun violence and school safety conversation, from the financial and emotional costs to enhanced campus security, and the vital role campus police, guidance counselors, and educators play in creating a learning environment where students are safe to thrive. We’ll be sharing content from those discussions in the coming weeks and months.

*This post has been updated to correctly identify Denisa R. Superville.