Dec. 3 Event: Ebola, Covering a Modern Plague
Film Screening: The Last 40 Miles
One by one, students ran from Columbine High to escape the terror caused by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. As teen-agers wandered outside the building, some appeared dazed and confused — shocked by the killings of their teacher and friends. Others cried and wept, unable yet to comprehend the horror of what they or others had witnessed.
Despite their emotional distress, many students appeared to be willing to talk to the news media. For the past year, there has been speculation about why students at Columbine were more willing to speak with journalists than students in other school shootings.
For the journalists who covered Columbine, the students' and families' willingness to speak was unexpected. Journalists who had covered school shootings in Springfield, Paducah or Jonesboro said they had expected hostility from the community and were surprised by the welcome.
In Brill's Content, July 1999, Jessica Seigel wrote: "For journalists, the Columbine massacre was literally a walk in the park compared to past school shootings."
Migael Scherer, Seattle writer and trauma survivor,notes that one reason for this perception was the availability of students — there were 1,900 attending Columbine High at the time of the shooting. Journalists could readily interview young men and women as they wandered outside the school shortly after the attack. The greater the number of students, the more likely journalists will find someone to talk, she said.
Scherer also added that many of the students were in shock and would likely follow directions from anyone resembling an authority figure. In this case, some teens viewed reporters as authority figures, someone they could trust to make sense out of chaos. "As a victim, I remember being in immediate shock," said Scherer. "I was so suggestible that I would follow instructions and would answer any questions. I felt the world was out of control and that I didn't have control of myself or my responses."
Siegel, writing in Brill's Content, suggested that some teens found it easier to speak with reporters than with their parents. They avoided talking to their parents after the shooting. Instead, many visited the memorial site, a place filled with journalists seeking one-on-one interviews.
"The teens believed that their parents couldn't understand," said Seigel. "Journalists, on the other hand, made for a willing audience." Jenny Favell, a psychologist who directs a program for family members of homicide victims at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, said traumatized victims may talk about their experiences immediately following a terrifying event out of nervousness and fear. By telling their story, the victims begin forming ideas of what happened and making sense out of the tragedy.
One journalist who was at Columbine confirms that perspective. David Handschuh, photographer for the New York Daily News, said many of The victims he interviewed spoke with him because they wanted to tell the world about their loss and to prevent another school shooting.
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.