If I made a list of books that all journalists should read, “Columbine” by Dave Cullen would be near the top. Cullen was at the Colorado high school on the day of the shooting, and he has covered the aftermath for more than 15 years. That experience has lent him a special type of insight on crimes of mass murder, the people who commit them, the folks who investigate them, and the journalists who cover it all.
In a recent essay for Poynter.org, I wrote about the “Journalism of Why” and how the search for motive was such a difficult task. I mentioned in that essay how reading Dave Cullen’s book had revealed to me how the earliest speculation about motive can turn out to be so wrong. In fact, everything I thought I knew about the two young Colorado killers turned out to be off-base. A myth had surrounded their actions, and it took investigators and journalists like Cullen years to debunk it.
Given the mystery of motive surrounding the recent Las Vegas shootings, I sent a message to Cullen with a list of 10 questions I thought relevant to the news of the day. I found the responses fascinating – both nuanced and practical. The key point, if I could extract one, is that the early mistaken theories about motivation tend to stick. Journalists need the virtue of patience, even when the clock of deadline is ticking like a metronome. In such stories, in Cullen’s words, “our blunders become immortal.”
Q: You covered Columbine from the day of the shooting. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given the young Dave Cullen as he went off to cover an event such as a mass shooting?
Cullen: Don’t get sucked into the pack. I read “The Boys on the Bus” years ago in college, and thought I understood the dangers. But when everyone else was reporting the killers were targeting jocks, I panicked, assumed I must be wrong, and followed the pack the morning after. I regret that.
Second, understand this will be traumatic for everyone, including me.