The headlines in major newspapers the day after the Columbine massacre were shocking — and they were wrong:
“Up to 25 Die in Colorado School Shooting” (The Washington Post)
Gunmen Stalk School, Killing Up to 25 and Wounding 20″ (Los Angeles Times)
“High School Massacre: Columbine bloodbath leaves up to 25 dead” (Denver Post)
In fact, the death toll was lower — 12 students and one teacher were killed on April 20, 1999 by shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who then took their own lives. Even so, Columbine remained the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history until the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 that left 17 dead.
Saturday marks 20 years since the Columbine massacre. There will be a public memorial service in the Denver suburb where it occurred and tributes to the victims everywhere.
And while correcting the death toll took only a day, other aspects of early reports that turned out to be unfounded have lingered in the nation’s subconscious.
“It’s frustrating because we’ve known so much for so long, but initial impressions are hard to change,” said Peter Langman, a psychologist who has studied school shootings so extensively that Sue Klebold contacted him for insight about her son Dylan while she was writing a memoir.
1. Harris and Klebold were not in the Trench Coat Mafia
Even as the massacre was unfolding, students told journalists that Harris and Klebold were members of a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia.
The Washington Post put it this way: “The shooters who turned Columbine High School into an unspeakable landscape of carnage yesterday were members of a small clique of outcasts who always wore black trench coats and spent their entire adolescence deep inside the morose subculture of Gothic fantasy, their fellow students said.”
The Denver Post reported: “By several accounts, the group [was] also interested in the occult, mutilation, shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and Adolf Hitler.”
And the New York Times: “[I]nvestigators now believe that among the dozen or so students in the group were the people responsible for yesterday’s mass shooting at the high school.”
Students and investigators did say this to reporters. But Columbine was a large school with 2,000 students. Many “did not know [Harris and Klebold], or knew them only as kids who sometimes wore trench coats,” Langman wrote in a 2008 report.
"As a result, people assumed that [Harris and Klebold] were part of the Trench Coat Mafia; this assumption is wrong.”
The year before the shooting, when Harris and Klebold were juniors, there was a group of mostly senior students who sometimes referred to themselves as the Trench Coat Mafia.
Harris and Klebold knew a few of these students, but they were not considered core to the friend group, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office later determined, and did not appear in a photo of Trench Coat Mafia members in the 1998 yearbook. Most of those students had graduated the year before the shooting.
Police also later determined that some students confused Klebold with another student who was in the group and resembled Klebold.
2. Harris and Klebold were not isolated outcasts or loners.
In the conflation of Harris and Klebold with the Trench Coat Mafia, they became synonymous with the word “outcast,” which appeared in every major newspaper report. The Post said people described them as an “isolated pair”; the Denver Post used “loners.”
But a thorough look at the shooters’ lives, one not based on panicked students’ reports, refutes this, Langman said.
“They both had a lot of friends. They both engaged in school activities, out-of-school activities, they worked part-time jobs with some of their buddies at a pizza shop,” Langman said.
Both were in a bowling league. Harris had played on the school soccer team as a freshman and sophomore, and continued to play soccer and volleyball after school, according to the sheriff’s office report. Klebold was in a fantasy baseball league and had gone to prom with a female friend a few days before the massacre.
3. The attack was not revenge for being bullied.
The first articles also indicated that Harris and Klebold sought revenge against classmates who had bullied them. The New York Times said Harris and Klebold appeared to target “peers who had poked fun at the group in the past.” The Post said students described them as “a constant target of derision for at least four years.” The Los Angeles Times said students considered the attack “lethal payback for old taunts and prejudices.”
But a look at police records and Harris’s and Klebold’s own writings paint a much more complex portrait, Langman said. Yes, Harris and Klebold were sometimes teased, but they were nowhere near the most bullied in the school and were much more frequently the bullies than the victims of bullies.
Most students are picked on at some point, Langman said, “so in the aftermath of a shooting, if reporters ask the students, ‘Was so-and-so ever picked on,’ the answer just on average is going to be yes. The significance of that though is completely unknown.”
In fact, Langman said, Harris’s personal writings show many “reasons” for his desire to kill: He wanted to see himself as “the law”; for sadistic pleasure; because the human race is “only worth killing”; and as revenge for being teased. Revenge was only one among many reasons. More often than not, Harris expressed a desire to kill complete strangers.
Harris and Klebold did not kill any of the students who had teased them; school shooters rarely do, Langman said. The two even said they knew that some of their friends might die in their attack.
“Getting it right was very difficult in those early hours, and first days, and I think all of us who covered the story regret the mistakes that were made,” said Tom Kenworthy, The Post reporter on the scene that day, in an email Friday.
The mistakenly high death estimate was the result of an early evening press conference by Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, who said, “I’ve heard numbers as high as 25.” Kenworthy recalled rushing to report that number by the print deadline.
School shootings were not new in 1999; in the two years before Columbine, there were deadly school shootings in Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore.
But Columbine was the first of these events to unfold live on television. The Chicago Tribune published a story about the uniqueness of the experience; the Associated Press called it “adrenaline television.” Networks were later criticized for revealing the locations of police and of hiding and fleeing students live on the air.
Since Columbine, more than 226,000 students have experienced gun violence at U.S. schools, according to Washington Post data. The frequency of school shootings has spurred changes in reporting aimed at limiting inaccuracies such as those that followed the Columbine massacre. The Poynter Institute and Suicide Awareness Voice of Education urge journalists to avoid reporting secondhand witness statements or amplifying small details, and the Radio Television Digital News Association warns against broadcasting the locations of victims and law enforcement while shooters are still active.
Others recommend avoiding the use of shooters’ names or publishing photos that glorify their crimes. This is because of another aspect of modern school shootings that started with Columbine — glorification of mass shooters on the Internet. As The Post’s Jessica Contrera reported this month, more than 150 strangers show up at the Columbine High School campus every month. Many are obsessed with the attacks, and pore over Harris’s and Klebold’s online writings and photos.
This week, an 18-year-old woman described by authorities as “infatuated” with the Columbine massacre traveled from her home in Florida to Colorado. Sol Pais immediately purchased the same kind of weapon used by one of the Columbine shooters at a gun shop two miles from the school, setting off a massive manhunt. She ran from the FBI and took her own life — her case becoming another reminder of the Columbine shooting’s enduring and dangerous mythology.
Read more Retropolis: