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'Columbine' Author Dave Cullen Criticizes Media's Handling Of Mass Shootings

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DAVE CULLEN
MSNBC

NEW YORK -- Dave Cullen, a journalist and the author of the definitive book on the Columbine High School massacre, says he's conflicted when interview requests start coming in after yet another mass shooting, whether it occurred in Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., or most recently, Washington, D.C.

Cullen expressed concerns Monday night on Facebook about adding his voice to the inevitable media crush that follows such tragedies, like the morning's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. "I don't want to do this anymore," he said Monday night on an Australian radio show. "I don't want to do this for a living." At the same time, Cullen spent 10 years researching and reporting Columbine, thus making him an expert who is asked to give his perspective on these grim, all-too-frequent events.

"Every time I write about this or talk about this, there's sort of a pang of a moral dilemma of, 'Should I even be involved in this?'" Cullen said Tuesday in an interview with The Huffington Post.

"But I just have to brush it aside," he continued. "You do your job, right? Well, I can't sort of engage in a mental debate about it every goddamn time, especially when time's of the essence. You just have to start writing or start talking or get in the shower, shave and put your suit on and go down to 30 Rock and talk about it. It's kind of your job."

So Cullen headed down to 30 Rock on Tuesday to talk about the Navy Yard shooting, but quickly shifted gears on air to question the media's role in promoting mass shooters, giving them a platform that could potentially influence others craving attention. Cullen said he's found that the commonality of so many shooters over the years is that they all "want to be heard, seen, known."

"I think we in the media have to look at our own role in this," Cullen said. "Because the fact that we cover these things, we put them on stage, we make -- you can call him hero, anti-hero, something -- we give them a starring role in this."

Cullen has written before on how journalists can make mistakes when rushing to publish information after a shooting or attack.

That was certainly the case with Columbine, where the press long amplified myths like the so-called "Trench Coat Mafia." More recently, news outlets tripping over one another to cover breaking news have been forced to retract information following the shooting of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Boston marathon bombing, and in the past 24 hours, the Navy Yard shooting.

On MNSBC Tuesday, Cullen said he doesn't think that it's realistic to simply scale back coverage, but questioned whether the media needs to always use the gunman's name on air or in print. "You just call him the killer, the perpetrator, the gunman, the suspect, all sorts of different things," Cullen said. "It's very easy to do. We disappear him."

Following the MSNBC interview, Cullen elaborated to HuffPost about how he's made this argument in more academic settings, including after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. He said the response wasn't favorable back then, with journalists and academics suggesting it would be unethical for the media to withhold information from the public.

But Cullen said he got a more favorable response this past spring during a conference at the Columbia Journalism School. "I think people in our business, our profession, are starting to come around," he said.

Cullen said that using the gunman's name may be useful in the first couple of days after a shooting if there's a need to get people to come forward with information. Still, he argued that it may only be necessary to mention it once during a program rather than throughout. "If you turned on the TV yesterday, literally if you flipped between channels, you might hear it hundreds of times during the day," he said.

He suggested news organizations could collectively decide either not to use the name or urge journalists to pause before doing so and determine if it's necessary. He pointed out that news organizations have long withheld certain details, such as the names of rape victims, and scoffed at the suggestion that the media isn't capable of collective action when it comes to agreeing to general guidelines following a shooting.

"We are the biggest herd mentality profession on the earth," Cullen said. "All we do is follow each other. We're freakin' pack animals to a fault, a horrible fault."

Just as Cullen remains somewhat conflicted about writing or speaking after the latest shooting, he said he had asked himself whether writing a book on Columbine would play into the killers' dreams of being depicted in a book or movie.

But he said it was an easier call to go forward with a book in 2009, a decade after the school massacre. He said he didn't think a book 10 years later would make mastermind Eric Harris "one ounce more famous than he already was."

Also, he suggested that the media's role in promoting shooters is more clear since Columbine.

"In Columbine, we didn't know it," he said. "We didn't know that there would be all these others. We didn't really know what the future would hold. We didn't know the spark would be lit that would become this thing, of these mass murders, that would go on and on and really ramp up 12 to 15 yeas later.

"We didn't know all that was going to happen. But now we do. And I think we're starting to realize we have sort of played a role. We didn't start it. But we have sure been hurling the gasoline on, or allowing it, really gassing it up. So it's different now."

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