Columbine: An Example of Media-Made Myths

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Armed with explosives, guns and knives, the two teenage students planned to bomb the school cafeteria during lunch and kill survivors fleeing the building. When the bombs didn’t detonate, the two moved through the hallways of the school shooting students and school employees for 45 minutes before taking their own lives. 12 students and one teacher were killed. Over 20 others were injured.

The tragedy shocked the world.  Time Magazine ranked the Columbine tragedy as one of the Top 25 Crimes of the Twentieth Century.  It remained the worst school shooting in national history until Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.

In the aftermath, difficult questions were asked.  The media, in a tough spot, ran with pretty much anything they heard that would make headlines.  Some of these popular stories have no basis in fact.  As messengers, it’s crucial that writers pass on correct information, especially during a tragedy.

While many rumors spun out of control in the months following the shooting, three particular myths greatly impacted the general public.

Harris and Klebold Were the Victims of Bullying
In the aftermath of the attacks, speculators were quick to assume both teenagers had been severely bullied. Rumors flew about their intent for revenge and their membership of the Trench Coat Mafia.  Bullying became a national issue, and educators and government officials all over the country scrambled to write prevention and punishment programs.

It’s nice that society takes more of an interest in teenage victims now, but unfortunately, Harris and Klebold didn’t murder 13 people because of high school bullying. According to a 2009 USA Today article, “they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshman and ‘fags.’” They were bullies themselves.  Whatever motivated them, and the rumor mill points to psychological disorders, bullying wasn’t a motivator.

Cassie Bernall Said Yes
Everyone knows this story. Practically every publication in the nation ran it:  When one of the shooters asked Cassie Bernall if she believed in God, she said, “Yes”. She was immediately shot, presumably for her answer. Christians and followers of other faiths hailed her as a hero.

However, investigators say the conversation never even happened between Bernall and the gunmen.  Multiple students were confused about which girl spoke these words in the Columbine library.  Authorities claim that the exchange actually happened between one of the shooters and another student, Valeen Schnurr, who survived the attack.

No One Knew
After the shooting, the media raved that the teenage gunmen were obviously deceptive and had tricked others into believing they were normal kids.  This myth unraveled much more quickly than the others, within days in fact.

In 1988, Harris and Klebold were arrested for breaking into a van and stealing inside contents.  As teenagers, the two already had a criminal record. Harris also often wrote public web content in which he literally screamed at the world and revealed plans to build bombs.

A concerned mother of an acquaintance of the boys even filed a complaint with local police. An affidavit for a search warrant of Harris’ home was filed.  Unfortunately, it was never issued. If authorities had searched his house, they may have found the guns the two had illegally acquired and the bombs they had built. Appropriate actions could have been taken, and tragedy could have been averted.  While it appears that no one knew of specific intentions, some did catch glimpses of hostility and violence in Harris and Klebold.

The Facts
The Columbine shooting sparked many controversies and issues that are still prevalent today including the “Gun Show Loophole,” and teen mental illness. Completed research shows these directly affected the killers and their plans. This is the kind of information the press should have passed on to the public.

The Lesson
Writers should always double-check their facts.  Find a credible source. Whatever it takes to verify a story.  Following a tragedy, the emotional public climate is heightened, and it’s important that people understand the truth.  Rumors not only confuse the public but they also take from the gravity of the situation.  Sometimes, the amended stories never reach some of the audience.  These people are left with false information that may never be refined.  Bottom line, it is the media’s responsibility to report the truth. It’s a job to take seriously.

What do you think?  Is it understandable that the media got carried away?  Do you think the focus on rumors had a negative effect on the victims?  Let me know in the comment section below.

Allison Ubriaco I'm a Mizzou J-school alumna who is curious about everything. I currently work in marketing and public relations in the St. Louis area. If I have a free second I spend it reading, writing or running. You can find me @aubriaco.

View all posts by Allison Ubriaco

7 Responses to “Columbine: An Example of Media-Made Myths”

  1. Brittany

    Great post Allison. I remember that day very clearly and it has always been something I’ve read up on over the years. About two years ago, I read the book about the shootings mentioned in that USA Today article. You should definitely check it out if you can.


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