Lessons of Columbine

Newspeople, recalling the horrors of Littleton, are learning to put saving lives first

When Littleton, Colo., officials held a "Take Back Our School" rally to commemorate those who were killed at the Columbine High School, they decided not to name the victims.

But at least one grieving mother, Phyllis Velasquez, whose son, Kyle, was among the victims, wanted to hear her son' s name again, KUSA-TV Denver anchor Kim Christiansen recalled.

"We ran their names and their pictures that night, on TV," Christiansen said. Later, Velasquez called Christiansen with a message that left the anchor in tears. Around Christmas time, the Velasquez family brought gifts to the station.

Not everyone connected with the tragedy has such kind regard for the news media. But given the scope of the event, television news coverage of Columbine was more careful than crazed. And in live coverage of other outbreaks of mayhem since, TV news seems to be behaving responsibly, making the lives of the threatened, not beats or the sensational story, its top priority.

The murders of a teacher and 12 students by two other Columbine students who eventually killed themselves a year ago this month held a national television audience transfixed and somber. Clearly, it was not the first tragedy covered live, nor was it the first school shooting. But the combination of children in the crossfire, a comfortable suburban venue, vivid and memorable images, and an unpredictable drama played out in real time before local and national network cameras created an indelible image for television.

A new sensitivity?

Today, neither Littleton nor the media are the same. The massacre prompted a new level of debate over the influence of television on such tragedies. But, that day, no one could argue the power of television to bring the tragedy of Columbine into living rooms across the country.

"At the beginning, we were focused on our community," said KCNC-TV Denver News Director Angie Kucharski. "It wasn't until a bit later that we realized the magnitude of the story and its significance around the country and around the world."

Bob Longo remembers watching the Littleton coverage live, while working in Buffalo, and saying to himself, "I can't believe this is actually happening.' ' Now the news director at WTAE-TV Pittsburgh, he had the same feeling six weeks ago, when his own station went live to cover a racially charged rampage and police standoff.

"A lot of communities have been through something like this," he said. "Littleton was the one that crystallized across the country that news directors had better prepare for something like this."

Similarly, news directors and general managers in Baltimore said that Columbine was on their minds when a gunman held three people hostage for four days last month. Local news there was both criticized and praised for following police recommendations in both reporting and not reporting certain parts of the lengthy crisis for fear of agitating a man believed to have already killed four people.

Clearly, too, Columbine was on the minds of newspeople in San Antonio last November, when shots fired at a school custodian' s truck in an apparent episode of road rage was initially reported as another school shooting.

"We cover school shootings more than we ever did, maybe more than we should," said Dennis Murray, executive producer for FOX News Channel daytime programming. "There were school shootings before Littleton, but this was the peak. Without Columbine, there would have been a lot of stories in the past year that would only have been covered locally."

Added Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, "It was a signal to everybody that this kind of story could happen anywhere, that there were some things news people would have to decide instantaneously. It naturally set off a discussion in newsrooms about what to do. It' led to modifications in the way stations have covered subsequent events. Many stations have used our guidelines [sent out by RTNDA previously and again following Columbine] and have developed their own written plans."

The danger of live TV

Bob Steele, who specializes in media ethics as well as crisis coverage for broadcasters at the Poynter Institute, notes the grim lessons of the tragedy. "We learn from each of these situations," he pointed out. "We learn about high quality and vigorous coverage, and we learn about the danger of missteps. In Columbine, we confronted the danger of putting on the air live the voices of those trapped within the crisis.

"The story reaffirmed for us the great danger of certain elements of live coverage of a breaking crisis. When [student] Patrick Ireland was seen falling out of that window, my concern was not its gruesomeness," Steele said, "but the danger that the gunmen could be watching television and use that information to shoot at escaping students."

While Denver' news organizations were praised for extensive, thoughtful and sensitive reporting, the coverage also came to symbolize some of the problems that accompany technological advances in both newsgathering and personal communication. "Denver coverage is so good," said Poynter's Al Tompkins, "their hardware is so good that the possibilities for coverage were endless. Whatever didn' t get on the air was because they chose not to put it on. For the few mistakes they made, which they have admitted, they did a lot of things really well."

While stations were careful not to reveal tactical police positions when shooting with helicopters and long lenses, they showed escaping students-perhaps most memorably Ireland, hanging from a school window. Calls were taken from students equipped with cell phones, sometimes revealing their locations within the school and potentially exposing them to additional danger. (At least one call was a hoax.)

RTNDA's crisis-coverage guidelines, written by Steele, begin, "Always assume that the hostage taker, gunman or terrorist has access to the reporting."

"More important than having guidelines," said kcnc-tv' s Kucharski, "is living them. You can have a great plan, but executing that plan is a challenge. Each journalist in this newsroom is a better and stronger journalist for having gone through this past year."

Covering the anniversary

Based on the turnout for a first-anniversary observance in Oklahoma City for the 1995 federal building bombing there, Jefferson County School District officials have said they expect as many as 100,000 people in Littleton on April 20. Local events will include an assembly at the school, a dedication at the state Capitol in Denver, a moment of silence and a candlelight vigil in Clement Park, near Columbine High School.

Local stations say they will be doing some special programming recognizing the anniversary, mostly following the local events.

But in fact, it is apparent that most stations are handling the anniversary delicately. KMGH-TV will air several pieces beginning the Sunday before the Thursday anniversary date, but tellingly, the stories will run late in the newscast, after the weather, "in case viewers choose not to watch,' ' said Diane Mulligan, the news director.

Network plans range from undetermined as of last week to simple to a story or two to significant efforts from NBC and FOX. NBC was planning to bring crews from several news shows to the area, and Tom Brokaw plans to host a town meeting in nearby Denver on gun violence, to which leaders on all sides of the gun-control wars have been invited.

FOX plans to air Terror in the Rockies: One Year Later shortly before the anniversary. It also plans a live show from Columbine High focusing on issues raised by the violence there on the anniversary date itself. That assembly of news packages and interviews will be hosted by Fox' s Shepard Smith, who reported from Columbine last year.

Local newspeople say many of the survivors and the families of victims will leave town for the anniversary.

Wary of media

The phenomenal attention given the community in its time of deepest tragedy, local broadcasters noted, has made residents wary of the media, particularly the national media. "Network reporters cover a story, and then they leave," said one local reporter. "We're the people who cover their stories every day."

Mass tragedies like Columbine are now huge media events, said victims counselor Robin Finegan, but she doubts that the media retained the lessons they supposedly "learned" from their mistakes covering events like Columbine.

Finegan had just finished a project involving Oklahoma City bombing victims and was home in Denver when she was called in the early moments of the Columbine crisis.

In the hours and days following the shootings, according to Finegan and local reporters, the town was flooded with reporters, and students and their family were inundated with flowers, fruit baskets and good wishes on behalf of famous journalists seeking "the get."

"I saw the media use an assumption of a reciprocal relationship, a friendship" with a network booker or network celebrity, said Finegan. "And there were bookers who hounded kids on dates, went to people's homes, to funerals."

Networks and network reporters note that all such interviews are conducted with the consent of adults and that people are often eager to talk to reporters. Talking about a loved one and about their loss can be cathartic. Perhaps the best known of the Columbine interviews, Katie Couric's emotional talk with Craig Scott, who lost a sister, and Michael Shoels, who lost a son, was acclaimed locally despite the obvious pain of its participants. "For millions of viewers," wrote Rocky Mountain News TV columnist Dusty Saunders, "it was a compelling interview that thrust into focus both the horrific events and the necessity for a healing process." To others, such interviews seemed too intrusive.

"Any television network has to accept that there is a possibility of exploitation of coverage of these stories," said Steele. "Coverage of these stories can certainly be legitimate. But we should not take advantage of these people. What vulnerable people need most is the care and sympathy of people who are close to them. When the journalists leave, the pain and problems will continue. The national press, the networks have a role to play, but journalists who come from faraway must bring with them a heightened sense of compassion and responsibility."

"Immediately after trauma, our coping mechanisms-how we deal with trauma-help us manage the flow of the trauma we experience cognitively and emotionally," Finegan explained. "That' s why some victims forget what they' ve been through. So when you get someone at the height of their trauma and their coping mechanisms are working, when someone asks them to recall or someone tells them things they may not be ready for and capable of managing, the reporter becomes in charge of our coping mechanisms. The victims lose control again.

"I recognize the needs of the media," said Finegan, a frequent interview subject herself. "I'm not saying there is some evil going on or the intent to hurt people. And when it goes right, a victim can feel that they've taken control back; they've had that opportunity to tell their story, or talk about a loved one."

Many Littleton stories told of those anxious families, waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. In one kmgh-tv report, a young man was waiting for his younger sister when he heard of the shootings, and headed toward Columbine. At the nearby drop-off location, he waited, calling his sister's name with more and more desperation as more and more students were brought there-and as the story cut between his waiting and the other families.

Kmgh-tv reporter Paul Reinertson knew the outcome when he put the piece together, but Erin Krolnicki' s fate wasn' t told until the story ended. "She was the last student out of the school," explained Mulligan, the news chief at the station. "[The piece] told the story of Columbine, the desperation and the fact that there were a lot of kids that made it out. It summed up what everyone was feeling. But," he added, "it haunts me to this day."