A tragedy misreported and misremembered: Why ‘the killer is rarely who he seems’

Dave Cullen was one of the reporters who descended on Columbine High School in 1999 when two teenage boys began murdering their classmates. Like the rest of the media pack, he reported a lot of things that simply weren’t true.

Unlike the other reporters, Dave Cullen kept going back to the Columbine story until, a decade later, he had learned what really happened.

On Sunday, as another pack of reporters swarmed the scene of another Colorado shooting, Cullen wrote in the New York Times about the myths that he and his colleagues created more than a decade ago. We think we know the Columbine story:  two teenage loners, bullied by jocks until they sought revenge.

“Not one bit of that turned out to be true,” Cullen wrote in the Times.

The media created myths about Columbine and “we created those myths for one reason,” Cullen writes. “We were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon.”

What is really disturbing for the media, and for anyone who relies on the media to understand the world, is the way those myths were created. As Cullen makes clear in his excellent book, Columbine, the early media reports were part of a feedback loop that started with media speculation.

When the reporters arrived at Columbine High, witnesses told them what they wanted to hear: stories about loners and bullying jocks. It wasn’t because the witnesses had first-hand experience with these “facts.” They were just passing on what they’d heard in the very first radio reports, which had been based on speculation, based on myths and stereotypes.

The front page of my Globe and Mail today has an indication of how powerful these loner myths are. A Top Student, a ‘Weird’ Loner, reads the headline on my print copy of the paper today. No matter that no one in the story calls him a loner; in fact, the story has a line from the AP quoting an acquaintance of the Aurora killer, who says that “describing Mr. Holmes as a ‘loner’ would be unfair.” (The online version has a more accurate head that still plays into our need for stereotypes about killers: Colorado Suspect a Top Student, but Too ‘Weird’ to Be Allowed on Shooting Range”)

Cullen urges his readers in the Times to be wary of news accounts about Aurora.

“Over the next several days, you will be hit with all sorts of evidence fragments suggesting one motive or another. Don’t believe any one detail. Mr. Holmes has already been described as a loner. Proceed with caution on that. Nearly every shooter gets tagged with that label, because the public is convinced that that’s the profile, and people barely acquainted with the gunman parrot it back to every journalist they encounter.”

The sad thing is that, despite Cullen’s excellent reporting, our impression of what happened at Columbine is still largely wrong. The myths of Columbine made sense and they made us feel better. So when Cullen came along with the truth – more complicated and more unsettling than the myth – we weren’t listening.