When the Columbine High School massacre happened, the media descended immediately. In fact, when it comes to electronic media, that’s their strength – getting the story out fast. The problem is, it’s also very often shallow and full of half-truths, rumors, and exaggerations. In the race for “breaking news” (I love that term), electronic news organizations are best at the first burst of coverage. But from that point on, like an easily distracted child, they move on to the next “breaking news” story.
I was reminded of that recently when I read that a new book on Columbine has been published by Dave Cullen. Cullen was on the ground shortly after the event happened on April 20, 1999, but unlike network news, he’s stayed with the story for nearly 10 years since. During those years, he’s poured over police reports, interviewed eyewitnesses, researched the victims and the killers, and methodically written a comprehensive account of the event. The book is a reminder of what real journalism is all about, and how there’s no substitute for painstaking research.
What the book reveals is that from the outset, the “breaking news” people led us astray. The story is obscured from the outset by misperceptions of the witnesses, and then misreporting by the media. Cullen even admits that he was wrong in those first days, which is a big reason he decided to stay with the story all these years, and find out the facts.
Cullen reports that one of the biggest stories was the case of Cassie Bernal, who was reported to have affirmed her faith in the seconds before she was killed. Cassie has been portrayed as a martyr for the Christian community since that time. But over the years, numerous re-creations of those moments have pointed to compelling evidence that it was actually another girl who proclaimed her belief in God. Cassie was praying before her execution, but it didn’t play out as it was originally thought.
No matter how you feel about the Cassie Bernal situation or the rest of the Columbine story, Cullen’s book is a powerful reminder that in an age of “breaking news,” the first responders often get it wrong. But because of the influence of global media, those cases of misreporting and sometimes outright falsehoods destroy lives and damage reputations before the real story can be revealed.
That’s why books will always have a place for me. It’s great to know what’s happening now, but we should never substitute initial conjecture for real facts.