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Columbine and the End of Journalism Part VII: The Good Stuff

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some reporters got it right on the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

The Associated Press was among the first to signal the coming of the anniversary with a review of three new books on the shootings. Writer M.L. Johnson produced an informed and, following the AP tradition, straightforward review. By pointing up key differences and similarities, she avoids pure propagation of new myths. "[Dave] Cullen discounts the idea that Harris and Klebold were outcasts or bullied," Johnson writes on the one hand. But she also added the flipside, well supported by the killers' writings and of course their actions: "[Jeff] Kass describes the boys' circle as 'probably the lowest rung of the social ladder.'"

Johnson also juxtaposes theories as she discusses the "why." Kass:

Columbine and other school shootings are an outgrowth of the South and West of the United States, and suburbs and small towns. In suburbs and small towns, if you're an outcast in high school, you feel like a loser through-and-through because there are no alternative outlets to find your self-esteem. ... And in the South and the West, there is a mentality that if you feel your honor has been injured, you take it upon yourself to retaliate.

Johnson contrasts that with the idea that, "Cullen believes Harris would have killed regardless of where he lived."

There is arguably a right and wrong amongst the various interpretations. But at least readers are given a choice.

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Aside from Johnson two of the most insightful reviewers were Denver writers who, through their knowledge and research, were able to put Columbine in proper context. If all politics is local, maybe journalism is too.

The Denver Post review was especially important given that the rival Rocky Mountain News (where I worked for ten years) had ceased publishing less than two months earlier and the Post was now the only major daily in Colorado. Keith Coffman, who reviewed the Columbine books for the Post, was described as "a Colorado-based freelance journalist. He has written about Columbine for Reuters, The Denver Post and the governor's Columbine Review Commission."

"The Columbine massacre of a decade ago," Coffman began, "was one of the most widely - if inaccurately - reported crime stories in American history." Although the record also shows that many errors were corrected, which the Post captures: "Myths surrounding the school shooting that were seared into the public consciousness from the early news coverage were later debunked, but muted by the passage of time." That key subtlety is the one that almost every reviewer and reporter across the nation missed, and so came to believe that what was old was news.

The Post also does good by doing no harm - i.e. not propagating new myths, and ends with a nuanced conclusion as to Columbine's most vexing question: Why? The Post refuses to simply buy into the idea that the shooters were just normal, popular teens and allows for multiple viewpoints. Mental illness, the American West and the isolation of suburbia (Kass) versus Harris the psychopath (Cullen).

Next up: Denver Post opinion columnist Vincent Carroll weighs in, admirably, on Columbine myths, old and new.