Columbine School Shooting
At 11:19 a.m. on April 20, 1999, two high school seniors began a shooting spree inside Columbine High School that killed 12 students and a teacher and seriously wounded 23 teenagers. Forty-nine minutes later, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris turned their 9-mm semi-automatic weapons on themselves. That much is known now. But at the time, few details were known. No deaths or injuries were confirmed by law enforcement officers until 4 o'clock that afternoon.
For nearly four and a half hours, local television stations struggled to find any information for the 1.5 million in the Denver metro area desperate for details. This case examines the problems television stations encounter covering a major story as it unfolds in real time.
The Columbine tragedy wasn't your typical news story where the press shows up after an event and reports what happened. Covering Columbine for TV would test the physical, emotional and psychological resources each station possessed. But no aspect of journalistic training would be more critically tested than the ability to make snap decisions about what to air under the enormous pressure of that first day.
No television reporter, producer or cameraman had time to ponder ramifications of airing a particular scene or an interview with a distraught child or a live shot of police moving toward hostages. None had time to check details or names spilling from students. Instead, each felt enormous pressure to get something on the air as fast as possible.
"There was so much information in the beginning and so much coming from different ways and different people that you didn't know what was right," says KUSA reporter Ginger Delgado. "So you were left to describe what you saw. Believe me there was a lot to talk about, but you had to be very careful about what you said and how you attributed it."
The toughest decisions in covering the Columbine tragedy involved what to air and when to air it.
"The most difficult decision that day was how much live to put on the air because the story was unfolding," says Diane Mulligan, KMGH news director since March 1998. "And because we didn't know all the facts or even whether the shooters were in the school, the most important thing was being in the control room deciding what shots to put on the air because the carnage was fairly massive. "
This case study raises several complex issues. For the purpose of teaching this case in one 90-minute class period, we are focusing on two:
When to Withhold and What to Ask
The issues for journalists to consider in deciding whether to withhold information include the following:
The questions and analyses that follow try to direct students into realizing the importance of these issues. Some issues will likely require more lead-in from the professor than others.
After the students have read the narrative, ask them to discuss what they think is a broadcaster's primary responsibility, in general. Note that viewers were desperate for information. Parents would hear snippets on the radio or get a panicked phone call alerting them to the shootings. Even local police were affected. Several arriving Denver police officers had children at the high school.
Considering all this, what is the station's responsibility? Let the students openly debate. If necessary, you can probe them by asking whether:
This is a significant debate because of the valid competing interests in similar situations. In this case, the competing interests are:
After the massacre, KUSA General Manager Roger Ogden told the Denver Post, his staff's "primary responsibility is to report news factually, accurately and timely. Of equal import is 'that we don't jeopardize the safety of any individuals'." In the same article, KCNC General Manager Marv Rockford said: "It's our responsibility to report the news. By not reporting it, we do not solve problems that clearly run much deeper in society."
What to Air
Before getting to specific questions about what students think should be aired live, remind them that every decision KCNC and other stations made before 4 p.m. was based on not knowing whether the gunmen were dead. Police learned the two were dead sometime between 2:30 and 3 p.m., according to Steve Davis of Jefferson County's Sheriff Department, so live coverage wasn't actually dangerous. But the news media didn't know this until the sheriff's 4 p.m. press conference reporting that Klebold and Harris had killed themselves. By 3 p.m., each station knew kids were dead but none broadcast the details until the Sheriff's Department made it official.
Under intense pressure, experience plays a key role in deciding what to air, says KMGH editor Gail O'Brien. "What do we show and what not is really common sense," says O'Brien, who has been in TV news for 30 years. "If you have time to think, then you are more likely to do a better job. But in breaking news, you don't have the time to think. You have to use commonsense on what makes air."
Denver television stations decided early on to take a conservative approach to the story. No tight shots. Show no gore. Don't use victim names until police release them even if you know.
Discuss those decisions.
When KUSA photojournalist Brad Houston arrived at the makeshift triage site, he found bloody, wounded teenagers lying on the ground. Houston made a personal decision not to show any close-ups or blood that first day. The triage site was a sickening scene, and, as a parent, he knew he would not want to see his child on television in shock and covered with blood.
"I knew we didn't want to show victims on the air when their parents didn't know," says Houston. "I did the same thing with blood. I shot the scene with blood and with no blood. We didn't put the blood shots on locally at first. But unfortunately, it went out on a live feed and then it's fair game."
Houston also saw his work on MTV, "E" and the networks, even though he played no role in the distribution. Once cable and broadcast network stations got explicit footage shot by local camera operators, it was fed for the world to watch live, or at least to see the same gruesome scene over and over.
KMGH's high-tech helicopter was able to photograph a bleeding student, Patrick Ireland, hanging from the second-story library window as a SWAT team was moving to rescue him. The footage was dramatic. Officers crouched behind a slow-moving armored vehicle as it headed for Ireland, who looked as if he were ready to jump. The camera stayed on the rescue as officers climbed on top of the armored truck and pulled Ireland down to safety. Just as Ireland, in a free fall, was about to slam into the truck, KMGH cut away.
Gail O'Brien, KMGH planning director and a television news veteran, talks about what she calls the "Splattering Theory" of television.
"Someone falls from the top of a building and you've got it all on video," said O'Brien. "What do you show? Young people usually say show it all. But if you have a conscience about you, you are always aware not to show the splattering. I always know if it's hard for me to watch, then I don't want viewers to watch. If you are good in the business, you go a lot by your gut."
KMGH News Director Diane Mulligan was criticized for running the Ireland story live. By airing it as it happens, say critics, KGMH potentially endangered the lives of Ireland and his rescuers. Her station also aired live pictures of about a dozen students running from the school and piling into police cars at 2:43 p.m., again when it wasn't publicly known the killers were dead.
"No one else had the Ireland footage live," says Mulligan. "We got a lot of coverage in Time, Newsweek, Broadcasting magazine. When I saw the Patrick Ireland visual. I knew we had won. But in this type of situation, competition takes a back seat, and ethics become the biggest thing you deal with. This station has been No. 3 for 20 years. We are a year into our rebuild and only six months into having a new revamped product on air. An event of this nature can change the direction of the station. It can change how viewers can see you."
What do you think of Mulligan's logic?
KCNC captured the same Ireland footage. But it aired Ireland splattering on the truck after the siege ended, and it was known that Ireland was alive. Deni Elliott, a newsroom ethics coach, said in the American Journalism Review that just because footage is available doesn't mean stations must air it.
"The public doesn't need to see pictures of a boy with gunshot wounds to his head dangling from a school window, or hear frantic calls for help on police tapes, or read about a dying man's last hours in minute detail," said Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana. "The Littleton story in and of itself was compelling enough. The rest of the drama makes it pornography."
Should KCNC have aired such gruesome pictures at all?
(After extensive physical therapy, Ireland, with one bullet still lodged in his brain, walks with a limp.)
KCNC was the first Denver station officially to report the names of the suspected killers. At 6:53 p.m., it released Harris and Klebold's names after its lead investigative reporter had triple checked the information. KUSA, however, didn't report the suspects' names for almost two hours after that, waiting until KUSA own reporters could confirm the names.
Why shouldn't KUSA air the names if they already been reported on another channel?
A KMGH reporter said live at 3:38 p.m.: "This is off the police radio and it's not confirmed. Shots are being fired right now in the gym."
How reliable it is to report information off a police scanner?
KUSA mistakenly ran a Columbine High School yearbook picture of Ryan Snyder, who had nothing to do with the massacre, and labeled it as gunman Eric Harris. This was devastating to Snyder and his family. The error occurred when a KUSA photographer relied solely on a reference in the back of the student-produced yearbook, which wrongly identified Snyder as Harris.
"The photo went on the web Friday and on the air after that," explained News Director Patti Dennis. "Late Friday night, I realized I had a problem. When you identify a person in a news story you have to be more than sure you have the right name. We normally don't identify minors. This for us broke the standard rule of not identifying minors.... Using a yearbook, you've just got to be really careful. It was just sloppy despite everything we have in place. It can't just look right or feel right; it has to be right when you are identifying a human being. I had a conversation with the individuals involved with the photo. It was severe enough that they got the message that this was clearly a potentially career-ending mistake. But there was no suspension."
After discussion, you might inform the students of the conclusions other journalists intimately familiar with Columbine coverage reached about the three Denver TV stations. Former columnist and Wall Street Journal editor Dean Rotbart spent April 20 at KCNC observing how a television station responded to the Big Story.
His conclusion: "KCNC's news coverage, which I witnessed firsthand, defies many of the most common negative stereotypes concerning broadcast journalism in general and local TV in particular," Rotbart wrote. "The station didn't rush to air with its scoop (gunmen's names) until staff members could get double and triple confirmations, which took several hours. Nor did the station opt to show gore. KCNC editors had plenty of film to exploit had they wanted. In the heat of the story chase, newsroom editors talked about their responsibility to decency and community values. No one dissented."
Similar views could be offered about coverage at the two other network stations, KUSA and KMGH . In their shops, rather than using the shootings to rope in new viewers, each station chose to respect the Denver population's community values. Each news director concluded during coverage that first day that in such an emotionally catastrophic story, being right mattered far more than who got a particular piece of the story first.
"I'm sure I could find a lot of mistakes and questionable judgment calls in what we did and things I would have done differently," said Kucharski. "But you do the best you can. We are humans having to make journalistic decisions second by second. There is no magical handbook."
Nor was it necessary to be melodramatic. Such a horrendous news story begged for understatement. "When video came in with really raw emotions, it didn't go on the air raw," says KMGH News Director Mulligan. "You got the moment but we didn't need to sensationalize it. The story itself is sensational. The key is to not sensationalize what you have in this market. It's very conservative."
Now come full circle and ask:
Competition Versus Sensitivity
"Overreact in the newsroom, under react on the air." That was KUSA's motto, says News Director Patti Dennis. That meant playing it conservatively because Denver in many ways is a small town. All three stations showed remarkable restraint in a situation in which crises came at news directors like hardballs out of a high-speed batting machine. In interviews the three female news directors each suggested that the story would have been handled differently in Los Angeles or New York.
Was the story handled with surprising restraint and sensitivity because the news directors are female? Although all three knew early on the names of the student murderers, they didn't air them until after 6:30 p.m. Neither did any station air the names of any wounded until names were released by the hospital. Although Denver is a highly competitive market, reporters and news managers appeared to be more concerned with being sensitive than getting a scoop.
"I had one news director from Los Angeles call me and say: 'What the hell were you doing when you broke away as Ireland was about to hit the ground?,' said KMGH News Director Diane Mulligan.
In the Columbine massacre, children played a key role. Nearly 2,000 teens were involved, making those who saw the shootings or those who were near the shooters or trapped inside the school obvious candidates for television interviews. However, children and teens, especially in breaking news situations, are not always aware of the ramifications of appearing on television. There is no time to consult their parents in breaking news. A journalist must weigh competing values of a duty to seek truth and a duty to minimize harm to anyone being interviewed. Television journalists at Columbine had to be particularly careful in putting teens on live television since it is far more difficult to control what they say while cameras are running. This is a ripe area for discussion, not only with covering Columbine, but covering children in general.
Ask students, in general, to discuss the following questions:
Some television reporters put aside microphones and talked with kids first and then asked if they would go on camera. Some journalists asked kids' parents, if available, for permission to interview the teenagers. Some reporters approached crying kids and asked them to talk about what they'd seen.
Excitable kids often blurt out information, correct or not, on live television. Certainly in this situation, teenagers were emotionally overwhelmed.
As an example, at 3:14 p.m. before it was officially known if anyone was dead, KMGH interviewed a 16-year-old boy after he'd been rescued.
Student Bree Pasqual witnessed Klebold and Harris killing students in the library and was hysterical when interviewed by television reporters shortly after fleeing the school. In essence, Pasqual was first to report there were dead bodies.
"The big decision was that Bree was so hysterical you almost felt frightened," says KUSA's Ginger Delgado, who interviewed Pasqual at the time. "She was so in shock and trying to describe what she'd seen. Her voice was shaking so badly and she was crying so much, her voice started to crack."
A competing station, KCNC, showed the interview live. Some say KCNC exploited Pasquale, showing the world her pain when she was still stunned by what she'd seen. Others argue the world needed to see pure raw emotion to fully comprehend the senseless massacre.
Rather than air Pasquale live before anyone knew of deaths, KUSA held the interview, running it at 4:32 p.m.—about a half-hour after the sheriff told reporters 23 were wounded and there were "possibly 25 fatalities." After Pasquale's interview was sent out on a feed, NBC and CNN, among others, broadcast it repeatedly.
KCNC interviewed students too. It allowed some students to blurt out the names of the gunmen before they were double-checked by KCNC's reporter or confirmed by police.
KCNC's reporter Mike Fierberg, at the school, put two girls on air live. But before he let them speak, he said: "We don't want you to tell us rumors or conjectures. I just want to know what you saw, not what you heard?"
The Factor of Law Enforcement (if time permits)
Incidents like Columbine and other examples where media and police goals conflict often create tension as each tries to do his or her job. While television reporters and producers need to be sensitive and cautious during strained police standoffs, law enforcement officers need to stonewall journalists less and cooperate more.
"Unfortunately, a lot of law enforcement agencies view (the press) as the enemy," says FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. "Their initial inclination is to cut off information from you. 'If we don't talk to them, maybe they'll go away.' That doesn't happen. You won't go away.... When I teach negotiators and crisis managers, I say: 'You either feed the shark or the shark will feed itself'."
The relationship between journalists and law enforcement officials has always been testy. Rather than showing mutual respect, they often perceive each other as the enemy. Journalists, in particular, fiercely guard their independence and bristle when police try in any way to control a story.
"One of the principles that applies in this kind of situation is journalistic independence," says Robert Steele, who teaches ethics to journalists at the Poynter Institute. "The news media are not an arm of law enforcement, but they also shouldn't be advocates for individuals or groups who are demanding something. That said, it's important for journalist to meaningfully weigh the concerns of law enforcement. There may even be rare times when we do cooperate with law enforcement to prevent immediate harm."
As an example, Steele points to instances when a hostage-taker or gunmen demands to talk to the media. A journalist should never, in his opinion, make that decision without consulting law enforcement. The FBI's Noesner adds that when a news organization grants an interview, negotiators often lose leverage. "As a negotiator, I may use that individual's ability to talk to the media as a reward for his good behavior," says Noesner. "That may be one of the most important things for people: to be listened to, to be heard. If you give that to them up front, I've lost some leverage in dealing with that individual."
Considering the sensitive relations between press and police, talk about how you think Denver stations handled the following:
KMGH and KCNC both landed their helicopters at the Jefferson County sheriff's request. They put out their reporters and each took on a deputy, who used the vantage from the sky to report to other officers what was going on. The Denver alternative weekly, Westword, criticized the two stations for being part of the law enforcement investigation. Many journalists consider joining forces in any way with police or helping them in an investigation is wrong.
KMGH broadcast live a SWAT team advancing toward the school, hiding behind an armored vehicle. It was fascinating, dramatic television. A real-live rescue operation. The goal was to save student Patrick Ireland, who was standing in the library window, dazed and calling for help. If the gunmen were still alive, this footage would have provided them valuable information. As it happens, the two gunmen were dead, but that wasn't publicly known at the time. FBI negotiators say they can almost always count on hostage takers watching television or listening to a radio in a tense, standoff with police.
KUSA too showed live on-air footage of students dashing from the school—"fleeing for safety," said KUSA's helicopter reporter Tony Lamonica, who narrated the rescue. "Cops are running for cover behind cars," Lamonica, the station's weather reporter, told viewers. "We are going to pull the camera a little bit back. We don't want to tip the gunmen off to where the police are."
"I don't think there was enough thought put into showing the escape routes of the students while the situation played out," says Poynter Institute's Bob Steele. "If the gunmen were still alive, and they had rifles and they saw the students running from the building on TV and knew the escape route, they could have shot at students and law enforcement. The same thing with Patrick Ireland falling out of the window. Showing that live made him and the SWAT team highly vulnerable. KMGH pulled away but not early enough, in my opinion. And they did it more, it seems, to not offend the viewers as opposed to giving away a vulnerable position. Certainly (KUSA) putting the phone calls on the air live was very dangerous too."
In almost every hostage-type situation, said FBI Chief Negotiator Gary Noesner, the gunman is watching television, listening to the radio, even surfing the Internet, as the event is occurring. Media attention is often a strong motivation. "More often than not, these people are watching TV," said Noesner. "That's where it can be problematic for us. A 20-second shot could potentially cause problems for us. But it's also true that law enforcement has to learn how to deal cooperatively with the press."
[NOTE: This is a good point to introduce guidelines for covering volatile situations written by the Radio-Television News Directors Association. You might pass out copies. Discuss other guidelines that could be included. As an example: One guideline states: Always assume the hostage taker, gunman or terrorist has access to the reporting.]
The student, Bob Sapin, was heard live on KUSA twice: at 12:15 p.m. and 12:45 p.m. Months later, a journalism magazine would tell Dennis that Sapin's calls were a prank. He wasn't hiding in bushes behind the school; Sapin (his real name) had called from Utah, where he's a 25-year-old unemployed snowboarder. CNN, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Boston Herald, Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle used part or all of Sapin's telephone interviews, according to Brill's Content.
Dennis and Kaplar also allowed Columbine student Jonathan Ladd to tell viewers live that his friend was "hiding in the choir room." Law enforcement officers were particularly critical of this 1:23 p.m. interview. At 1:23 p.m. police still didn't know where the killers were or whether they were still alive. With television sets in most Columbine classrooms where the killers could watch them, that call could have provided them with a road map to the next victim.
Months after the Columbine shootings, KUSA News Director Patti Davis said, "It was one of those decisions we could have made smarter. Now, I would have talked to the caller, debriefed him, taped it and thought about it. But at the moment, every journalist I know who had an eyewitness, not someone saying, 'This is what I heard'. But someone saying, 'This is what I saw.' At that moment, we felt we had an eyewitness.... You have to weigh the public's need to know now. The keyword is now. His (Sapin's) insider information was answering questions, but we could have waited."
Include a discussion of guidelines for unsolicited telephone calls, which were written after Columbine.
KUSA News Director Patti Dennis told her field crews right at the start: "No tight shots. Parents don't know. I don't want to see faces. It's not appropriate. There are too many parents wondering what happened."
Additional Questions (if Time Permits)
Do you think this story might have been handled differently in a different television market? Denver, admittedly a conservative town, is the country's 18th largest market.
Might different decisions have made covering an identical story breaking in Miami, Los Angeles, New York or Kansas City, Des Moines, or Aberdeen, South Dakota? Why?
In October 1999, six months after the Littleton shooting, CBS News broadcast a chilling surveillance video obtained by its Albuquerque affiliate, KRQE-TV. The 90-second segment shows a grainy, black and white image of Klebold and Harris shooting at a homemade propane-tank bomb in the cafeteria, students running for cover under tables, and the bomb exploding.
Worried that such graphic images might re-victimize survivors and their families and saying the video didn't advance the story, the three Denver stations opted to not show it, including Denver's CBS affiliate, KCNC. In its defense, CBS and KRQE-TV, said the news value outweighed any negative impact.
In stories of this proportion, the national media will descend, bringing large staffs, fancy equipment, fame and deep pockets of money. Invariably, tension arises between the local and national media. Local media have more invested in their communities. They live there. Their children go to school with people they might cover. Local Denver journalists reported that they tried extra hard to be more sensitive and tactful in covering the Columbine tragedy. But, for the national media, the first priority was getting the story.
Overnight, the scene went from 20 local crews to 100-150 television crews from all over the world. Journalists from television networks and big city newspapers parachuted in, peppered local journalists with questions, rudely demanded interviews, or camped out in front of homes belonging to victims' families.
KMGH's managers decided not to bombard the victims' families. They refused to bang on doors or pester families with phone calls, although other journalists went that route.
"We tried to get in the back door by calling friends of the families to see if they were willing to talk," says Gail O'Brien. "We used PR people a lot. We made requests to interview the families. We tried to reach them through their churches and funeral homes. But we would not camp out on a family's lawn. We tried to reach the Klebold and Harris families through their lawyers. Part of it is, that's just the ethic of Denver."
Pestering families at a time of obvious intense grief turned Denver's citizens against the media, many local journalists feel. The onslaught of hundreds of journalists overwhelmed residents. After a time, the local community lumped national, local, and foreign journalists into one evil group to focus their anger on.
After the outside media fly home, the local media are left to "clean up" hard feelings. The public often doesn't make a distinction between the national and local media. Those who have had a negative media experience often decide "all media" are bad.
"I had the biggest problem with out of town field producers, " says Kehe. "They would swarm people. They could be really intrusive, yelling questions. I think the people hustling the crowd the most were field producers."
Five months later, Kehe was interviewed. "I've gone out to Columbine high school three times since the tragedy," says Kehe. "One was a class reunion. When I went back to my car, which was obviously a media car, someone had written: "Media Sucks," and drawn a skull and cross bones."
Another time, Kehe arrived in a KUSA marked car when students were releasing 13 hot air balloons in memory of the 13 killed. "As I drove up, people started yelling: 'What the hell are you doing here? Go the hell home!' There's still a lot of anger out there by people who weren't treated well by the media. I do know the way I did my job and how I treated people, and I didn't deserve it. We have to regain their trust. It will take a long time."
As an example, KUSA-TV invites public information officers, sergeants and detectives from various metro jurisdictions to spend the day at the station and see first-hand how TV does its job and what's required.
Another kind of tension erupts when local authorities are wowed by a celebrity newscaster, such as NBC's Tom Brokaw or CBS's Dan Rather. While the story initially belonged to the local media, a few days into it, such national media as the New York Times or NBC started breaking stories. Local sources were feeding information to out-of-town journalists and not to the people who cover them day in and day out.
"What really got to me was when the national media started breaking details of the investigation that we couldn't even get," says KUSA reporter Ginger Delgado. "When the nationals descend, they bring in hundreds of people. Our lowly station doesn't have the manpower to get what they get. You can't compete with the networks. Especially if it's a big name network reporter calling. You have to rely on sources and contacts you've made as a local reporter to get the stories. That's why it's important to have cultivated good sources."
KCNC anchor Kathy Walsh was reporting live from the triage site and broke into tears on the air. Walsh, a parent herself, was criticized for being emotional and therefore, unprofessional. What do you think?
Discuss journalistic professionalism and how reporters should act when covering an event. They are trained not to show bias or emotion when reporting and to work hard at being fair. KUSA anchor Kyle Dyer, a broadcast journalism graduate of University of Maryland, says it's not always so easy. Covering Columbine, she says, was the worst day of her career. Although not a parent, she has seven nieces and nephews and found herself deeply affected by seeing children hurt and covering teenager funerals.
"Journalism students think that they'll always be unbiased and untouched by their stories," says Dyer, then 31. "But that all changes when stories like this happen. I am a lot more sensitive than I was when I started out, and I think it makes me a better journalist. I live in this community, and I think viewers appreciate it when I show 'I'm one of them.' But I don't wish a story like Columbine on any journalist."
The three local Denver stations pre-empted commercial TV for almost 21 hours of lucrative network time between April 20 through April 22. By not running commercials during Columbine coverage, each station was actually losing money. An NBC executive told the Denver Rocky Mountain News that KUSA's decision to preempt commercials cost it about $600,000.
Let's say you are the general manager who knows that commercial television, not local news, pays the bills.
Have students list some tough difficult decisions. Often television news is cut and dry. A fire burns down a house. You get footage of the roaring fire, or later photograph the burned out house. But covering the Columbine massacre posed some thorny ethical issues. You might ask students to explore:
Some factors you might suggest: