On one of my first days of journalism studies, I vividly remember an instructor, sitting in front of a class of 30 or so wide-eyed young people, explain the very real possibility that there may come a time in our careers that we will be met with a tragedy that needs coverage.
I remember sitting there, if I’m honest a tad uncomfortable, and listening to the instructor speaks about coverage happening on the scene of a tragedy, having to talk with victims if possible, or families after the dust has settled, and wondering to myself if I was brave enough for this profession.
Less than a month after starting my program eight students at Umpqua Community College in Oregon would be dead, with another nine injured, but it would not be the last incident.
Before the end of the year, my class would also talk about a gunman entering a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three and injuring nine, and two gunmen killing fourteen and wounding twenty-two in San Bernadino, California.
The fact that we, as a collective society, have to talk about shootings so frequently, and that we are so desensitize by them happening, says a lot about the world we live in.
Because I am always interested to see how others react to tragedy, and how other reporters choose to present the information, when I saw that Dave Cullen, one of the first journalists on the scene of the Columbine shooting, had written a book, not only explaining the facts of what happened, but also how the media chose to portray the tragedy, I knew I had to pick the book up.
What did I think of Columbine by Dave Cullen? Keep on reading to find out my thoughts and opinions.
Direct excerpt from the back of the book:
What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we “know” is wrong. It wasn’t about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world’s leading forensic psychologists, and the killers’ own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.
My relationship with this book started when I purchased it. Every so often I get an itch to read a true crime novel, and I happened to stumble on this one in my local book shop’s relatively small crime section.
However, when I was walking to the counter to purchase it, I was struck by an emotion that I hadn’t felt when buying any other book. Even writing this now I still can’t quite come to grips with what that emotion was, a mixture of shame or guilt would be my best bet.
Was I ashamed that I was picking a book up that’s subject matter was still fresh on everyone’s mind? I mean I read non-fiction history about the World Wars all the time, so how could this be different, right?
Was it guilt that I was letting a tragedy like this be monetized? I’ve always lived under the assumption that truth is stranger than fiction, and I tend to pick up non-fiction when I need a reminder of
One passage that resonated with me was when Cullen went into detail about the years after Columbine. Cullen touches on school shootings following Columbine, and how the worst one, while he was writing the book, was the Virginia Tech shooting. The passage that stuck out for me, however, was not how many people were mercilessly killed at the hands of the shooter, but how ‘the press proclaimed it a new American record.’ The fact that the media was making school shootings into a sort of competition still resonates every time a new shooting is covered today, and it is something I think every journalist should strive to correct moving forward.
A choice that Cullen made that I respect him for is the exclusion of pictures from the book. Yes, it does make the book very text heavy, but at the same time, it allows those who are interested solely in the facts to stick to them. That is not to say, however, that Cullen doesn’t say if people want to see pictures that they can’t go on the internet and search up ‘Columbine’. But by excluding the pictures, it made me step back and understand what the text was telling me, that this was a real event that happened not so long ago in our history.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.