The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.
Closure does not always exist. That is something you learn covering crime. When your son, daughter, husband or wife has been killed, the pain never goes away. It may dull over time, or hit less frequently. But it can suddenly return and sting when celebrating a birthday or passing a favorite restaurant. For Michael Shoels, whose 18-year-old son Isaiah was among those killed at Columbine High School, even the ten-year anniversary of the shootings last year meant little. "I remember it like yesterday," Michael said. "All these anniversaries don't make any sense because it's in my head every day."
Some Columbine victims families passed the ten-year by returning to the school and walking through the nearby memorial in Clement Park. The memorial was not cleared for the parents, and they quietly mingled with the reporters and general public who had arrived on April 20, 2009 to honor the anniversary. Most people and reporters buzzing the area that day did not recognize the victims' families. Just as they did not recognize the story of Columbine.
Columbine has always been a very difficult story to untangle, even for those dedicated to covering it. Authorities - namely the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office - routinely withheld information but were then often forced to parcel it out, generally after lawsuits. The Columbine story dribbled out piece by piece, year by year. Each round of new information often changed the story as we knew it. Only a select number of reporters developed an expertise. The events of Columbine also defy easy explanation - it was not simply the parents, or gun control, or bullying.
Yet school shootings and other mass shootings are one of America's most high-profile social issues. Like plane crashes, they are rare but highly dramatic events. Mass shootings hit schools, malls and health clubs - where people think they are safest. And Columbine remains the world's most iconic school shooting. So with good reason, a phalanx of international media revisited the ten-year anniversary. It seems safe to say that media coverage of the ten-year anniversary was rivaled only by coverage of the shootings themselves.
A decade later, the media had a truckload of facts at its disposal to burrow into why Columbine seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 others before taking their own lives. Over 26,000 pages of police documents had been released, lawsuit files were the size of telephone books, and reams of news stories filled the archives. The Columbine file seems to be nearing completion (although one can never know, as information unknown to exist has a knack for surprise appearances). The ten-year also saw the publication of three books that reporters often used a pivots for their coverage, including mine, Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).
And yet, media coverage of the ten-year anniversary was often uninformed and served to create new myths surrounding Columbine. The misguided coverage seems to fall into two main categories. Many reporters bought into a new myth that the Columbine killers were simply ordinary, popular teens, without stopping to critically examine that statement. Do ordinary teens really commit school shootings? If so, why don't we have thousands of school shootings a day? If school shooters are ordinary, does that make the vast majority of teens who do not commit school shootings out of the mainstream? Of course not. School shooters are a disaffected, but thankfully rare breed.
Another false buy-in on the ten-year anniversary was that the Columbine "myths" were just now being debunked. In fact, plenty of media in the days and months after Columbine did get many aspects wrong. But they later corrected it. And the errors were not necessarily due to sloppiness, laziness or pursuit of a neat story angle. In part, it was inaccurate information accurately reported. Columbine students, for example, repeated error-filled stories to reporters either because they didn't know or made honest mistakes (i.e. they truly thought Cassie Bernall was the one who said "yes," she believed in God). Reporters wrote it down.
Columbine remains Colorado's largest criminal probe, with thousands of interviews, potential witnesses, and a crime scene the size of a high school. A small army of investigators did not have a full picture for months. Yet some of the media still got the early details right - or at least they provided multiple viewpoints. Many inaccuracies were corrected long before the ten-year anniversary. But you wouldn't know that from reading the recent news coverage.