"These boys were dangerously strange" -- How Media Discourse Targeted Outsiders after the Columbine Shooting, Part 1

By Doctor Comrade

[This is the first part a three-part series on school shootings, the media, and discourse about abnormality. Part 2: "How could it happen here in this nice, quiet, middle-class community?": Corrupting the Suburban Sanctuary | Part 3: "The corrupting influences of modern American culture": The Technologies of Deviance]

After the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, a reporter for NBC News declared: “Those who knew these teens best say… These boys were dangerously strange.”[1] Following the events, journalists rushed to explain how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two affluent, suburban white boys, could perpetrate unprecedented violence against their peers. The media used interviews with various eyewitnesses and experts to assign blame for what was at the time the deadliest American school shooting. These interviews designated the shooters as deranged killers because they enjoyed violent music, video games, and movies; they also wore trench coats, associated with the outcast clique called the “Trench Coat Mafia,” dressed in black clothes and makeup, subscribed to the “Goth” subculture, listened to Marilyn Manson, and were closet homosexuals. The media panic surrounding the shooting quickly identified Harris and Klebold as dangerous outsiders to the idyllic Columbine community. In the subsequent weeks, new information surfaced that corrected erroneous details in the early stories about the shooters, including their actual musical and clothing preferences, but did not challenge their identity as outsiders.

The media coverage framed the events in terms of how an affluent suburban school, where everything was supposed to be normal, was tainted by external abnormality. When the media blamed “dark culture” for the shooting, they implicitly delineated “normal” and “dangerous” cultural consumption, leading to the story that normal students came under attack not from two kids who shared their upbringing and circumstances, but by two young men who had been corrupted by forces that were external to the suburban white community. Three narratives illustrate this point: the first is how the suburbs are supposed to be sanctuaries that are free of violence and deviance because they are separated from corruption, which comes from a history of white-flight and racialized notions of violence; the second is how Harris and Klebold were labeled as deviants, a social construction that would place their identities, in addition to their actions, outside acceptable limits; and the third is how some of the victims at Columbine were treated like martyrs who fell to the threat of non-Christian violence.

In the case of the Columbine Shooting, the media portrayed the shooters as deviant freaks and products of abnormal entertainment interests; this perspective preserved the sanctity of these suburban havens by both illustrating the superiority of suburbia and denigrating external influences. When the boys attacked their high school, they challenged the legitimacy of the view that the suburbs were perfectly safe places to live. By representing the shooters as corrupted from the outside, the media protected the culture of the suburbs from the conclusion that suburban life was not especially safe from violence (safety that guaranteed superiority over other areas, like the inner city). The first week of news coverage demonstrates how the stories, with all their factual inaccuracies and narrative biases, formed to target scapegoats that were already well-established in the cultural consciousness, like alternative music, violent video games, neo-Nazism, and homosexuality. By relying on allegedly first-hand accounts from students, the media could maintain its credibility as fair and balanced, even though these interviews would later reveal not only how the media cherry-picked damning information about Harris and Klebold, but also the toxic environment that left the shooters bullied and outcast. In this way, the shooters identities as outsiders were crafted as externally motivated, not internally caused, which illustrates another aspect to how the news coverage protected suburban identity against claims that it may have caused the shooting itself.

Around 11:00 AM on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two white kids with educated and professional parents, attempted to detonate bombs in their upper-class high school in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Their goal was to kill as many of their peers and teachers as they could. When the bombs failed to go off, they took guns into the school and killed thirteen people, wounded 21 others, and then killed themselves.[2] In the following hours, the national media descended on Littleton. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and FOX all sent reporters and cameras to cover the events for the evening news. The Associated Press printed several stories about Columbine in their late editions. Early accounts told audiences what had transpired in a school that was invariably described as wealthy, suburban, and peaceful.

This article is a cultural history of journalism in the 1990s through the lens of Columbine’s news coverage.  It seeks to explicate the cultural reasons why Harris and Klebold were portrayed as corrupted, dangerous outsiders, and why the media incorrectly targeted certain groups like the Trench Coat Mafia, Marilyn Manson, and Goths. Columbine’s coverage demonstrates how news organizations crafted particular stories that conformed to larger cultural narratives, particularly about how suburbia was a sanctuary that was corrupted by external deviant media and two perverted, vulnerable young men. Because the media’s explanations relied on differentiating between what was “normal” and “dangerous” entertainment consumption, they exaggerated Harris and Klebold’s outsider status and inflated it into an explanation for the shooting, thereby asserting causation and linking abnormality to violence. The inviolable suburban school is a myth, complete with heroes and villains, with preexisting roles for characters like Harris and Klebold to play, and they were shown to be the monsters that threatened the superiority of suburban life. Columbine’s coverage comes in a long line of moral panics, and it is indicative of the ways the media reinforces beliefs about abnormality, “dark culture,” and youth violence.[3] This is not to say that the media orchestrated a conspiracy against strange kids to protect the self-perception of a privileged socio-economic class, but rather that the deep-seated cultural attitudes towards abnormality and immorality led the media to oversimplify and misrepresent the events in the only culturally compatible way possible. The Columbine news reports are exemplary cases of how news coverage reveals the historical developments of several narrative trends during the mid- to late-twentieth century, including the portrayal of alternative entertainment like video games and violent movies, fear of Satanic cults, and violence against Christian children by non-Christian perpetrators. These narrative structures in the Columbine story will also trace the familiarity of monstrous and villainous tropes in journalism’s recent history.[4]

The first narrative is the way the media portrayed the archetypal suburban school as a sanctuary. The media idealizes the school as a haven that is isolated and removed from violence that corrupts other areas of society, and schools had made progressive strides in educational equality and safety in the latter half of the twentieth century.[5] The school is also seen as a vital space for cultural transmission and formation, as well as a contested space where individual identities diverge and harden.[6] At Columbine, reporters and news anchors constantly emphasized how teachers and students were shocked such events could happen there and the news remarked about how “innocence was lost” after the events.[7] This kind of concern for children reflects how the “child-victim” concept garnered more media attention starting in the 1970s and 1980s, especially with regard to deviant adults who would cause harm to children.[8] The second narrative traces the ways deviance is portrayed by the media. Blaming youth culture for deviant outbreaks is a well-established discursive strategy, and the digital age made possible new delivery methods for music that became targets for blame.[9] Video games and internet access allowed a kind of digital underground to form, which was particularly threatening because it was so difficult to monitor and police. Exploring how various media outlets deployed deviance illustrates how this suburban culture dealt with questions of normality/abnormality and their relation to danger by marginalizing and separating deviance from suburban life. The third narrative was the continuation of moral panics surrounding non-Christian violence perpetrated against Christian children. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the news media reported that hundreds of satanic daycare providers were abusing young children. During the coverage of Columbine, the news construed one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, as a Christian martyr, which facilitated the demonization of the shooters. In the same fashion as the school sanctuary myth, the shooters were accused of corrupting the community because they were Satanists who targeted Christians during the massacre. These representations were far from unprecedented; the moral panics of the previous decade had set the stage for another explanation of deviance, and the Columbine Shooting presented another familiar form.[10]

The term “media” refers to the major television news networks and newspaper organizations. The primary sources include news reports from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and FOX news stations, as well as newspaper stories mostly from the Associated Press, New York Times, and the Denver Post. The sources were drawn from mainstream news reports, rather than overtly political reporting that is often associated with several programs on FOX and MSNBC. This selection attempts to minimize the number of stories that were crafted to purposefully support an agenda. Instead, the “mainstream” stories are meant to convey the ways that supposedly unbiased news carries underlying cultural messages.

Current scholarship argues that corporatization of the news media in the late twentieth century concentrated news-making power in a few conglomerates, and that this small number of networks can explain how news stories form. This conception of the news treats the media as if it is a product of capitalism, and that journalism is based on business ethics. This paper challenges the corporatization explanation because it does not account for underlying cultural factors that shape the discursive strategies deployed within media coverage. For instance, the media’s search for something to blame indicated that they immediately conflated news gathering with editorializing. The media’s discourse was not simply a product of corporatized journalism, but rather followed the precedent of previous moral panics in the press by relying on tropes that would have been familiar to audiences. Columbine’s treatment can contextualize the history of twentieth-century journalism within a larger cultural framework that takes into account those broader social traditions that drive and define the news.

Common perceptions of the media would suggest that people expect the media to be impartial, fair, and objective.[11] “Objectivity” in a journalistic sense is a concept that developed in the 1920s around journalistic professionalism. Around the end of World War One, journalists began developing and standardizing their own professional ethics, which gave rise to “objectivity” as something to strive for. In this sense, objectivity referred to writing an unbiased account in which all the facts about an event could be externally verified and validated by the journalistic community.[12] Other historians have argued that objectivity developed as the result of technology and commercialization, which allowed newspapers to reach larger and politically heterogeneous audiences, so news organizations attracted advertisers by reducing the number of consumers who would become alienated by politicized news.[13] Most journalists abandoned objectivity by the 1960s during the rise of advocacy journalism, which saw journalism as a way to fight for global justice.[14] From the journalists’ perspectives, objectivity came to be seen as a bias in itself, and was largely abandoned as a professional standard. “Objectivity” was perceived by this new wave of journalists as a refusal to “examine the basic structures of power and privilege” and therefore reinforced the same powers that had, for instance, perpetrated McCarthyism, racism, or involved the US in Vietnam.[15]

With the increase in television journalism in the following decades, journalism became a more lucrative career, and highly educated college graduates became attracted to it. The rise in education standards for journalism helped develop interpretive journalism. In effect, journalists were importing their rhetorical and interpretive skills into journalism, and instead of just telling their audiences what happened, they also told them what events meant.[16] The media began presenting stories as “fair” or “balanced” for the audience in order to maintain credibility, giving the impression that both sides of an argument or story could play into their interpretation of the events. For the public, this gives the impression that there is conflict in a news story that needs to be interpreted, “even in instances of relative consensus,” because journalists must illustrate fairness to maintain their heterogeneous audiences.[17] Over the last four decades of the twentieth century, credibility replaced objectivity. The presence of credible journalists allowed news corporations to maintain competitiveness against other outlets.[18] This points to how journalism as a profession is inseparable from corporate interests and the drive for profit, and several historians have taken a top-down approach by arguing that the corporatization of news and the competition over profit have deprioritized the search for “truth” and replaced it with fast-paced, sensational stories that attempt to capture the public’s attention.[19] Although this seems to mirror the “yellow journalism” of the nineteenth century, the emphasis on credibility and the idea of balanced non-partisanship differentiate this period.

Journalism in the digital age often deals with chaotic timetables in order to remain competitive and profitable, which forces reporters to break stories faster than their competitors.[20] In essence, each news organization wants to break a story first in order to persuade the largest percentage of the audience to tune in, and they directly compete against internet bloggers and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The byproduct of this kind of rush prevents rigorous fact-checking, as reporters simply do not have time to get corroborating accounts or present “all the facts.” And because there are so few different news corporations, there are also fewer accounts and perspectives. News stories emerge from a limited number of perspectives, all of which are driven by profit. This account of news formation is incomplete because it privileges corporate ethics as the strongest factor. Instead, a cultural perspective can explain why news stories such as the coverage of the Columbine Shooting emerge and conform to previously-established cultural beliefs.

Because this paper seeks to explain the production and deployment of cultural values, Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of “metanarrative” can help to understand Columbine’s coverage. A metanarrative is a comprehensive and systematic explanation of knowledge or experience, a mode of understanding information as “good” or “bad,” or perhaps “true” or “false.” In this way, a metanarrative is a pre-existing set of criteria that allows receivers of information to judge whether “[informational utterances] are… ‘good’ because they conform to the relevant criteria (of justice, beauty, truth, and efficiency respectively) accepted in the social circle of the… culture of a people.”[21] These criteria form the basis of how to integrate what could be called facts of reality into an apparatus that allows those facts to make sense to a culture. A metanarrative is a narrative about narratives. In essence, it is the big story that smaller stories become a part of, and a way for the small stories to make sense; they are sub-narratives, or the ways that society legitimizes its actions and attitudes with regards to its predominant beliefs. Lyotard cites the example of how society integrates scientific knowledge because metanarratives are ways of incorporating new knowledge into existing knowledge, like how a new scientific discovery, even a discovery that would contradict existing scientific knowledge, is always taken as a sign of progress. In this way, science uses this metanarrative of “progress” to legitimize its endless research. Under this metanarrative, society can understand the narrative about science, in that it is a tool of human progress towards greater quality of life and technology. The metanarrative is that life keeps getting better. This suggests that metanarratives are ways of incorporating new knowledge into existing knowledge, like a new scientific discovery is always taken as a sign of progress. New knowledge becomes legitimate, or comes to be understood, only by incorporating it into these existing cultural forms. The media, through its discourse, deploys particular narratives to frame current stories. The narratives in Columbine’s coverage framed the events in terms of how an affluent suburban school, where everything was supposed to be normal, was tainted by external abnormality. These discursive strategies, which Lyotard calls “language games,” reinforce the metanarrative by contextualizing pre-existing beliefs within a current reality.[22] Culturally, abnormality was already seen as dangerous, and the news media used Columbine as evidence to that effect.

This theoretical approach problematizes the role the media plays in the discourse of abnormality by contextualizing the history of journalism within these kinds of overarching social myths, which shows how the media plays an active role in cultural production and perpetuation. These metalinguistic concepts, like normality or justice, are established by underlying cultural attitudes, and they manifested in the Columbine coverage. Within this context, the media reinforced metanarrative structures with the information broadcasted to the public. In the case of Columbine, the metanarrative perpetuated by the media was how abnormality is inherently immoral, and therefore it threatens a well-functioning community. The three sub-narratives about the suburban sanctuary, satanic infiltration, and Christian martyrdom illustrate this point.

The conception of normality represented in the news media further highlights racial and class-based disparities between coverage of inner-city and suburban (white) schools. On one hand, the national news media almost completely ignored violence in inner city neighborhoods by young people.[23] The media broadcasted messages of shock when the middle-class suburb of Littleton came under fire, which implies that violence in suburban neighborhoods is abnormal. Violence in any area is certainly out of the ordinary, but the media’s tendency to sensationalize and emphasize suburban violence was betrayed by the language used to refer to Columbine. Invariably, Columbine was described as affluent, white, and peaceful, which is to say that violence should not occur in that kind of area. But that leads to questions of where violence should occur: the opposite conditions of Columbine, or non-affluent, majority-minority, non-idyllic neighborhoods where violence is more prevalent. Therefore, the media’s discourse about Columbine reflected the normalized violence in the inner-city, because there is no surprise coverage of young, impoverished children’s deaths. Asking the question “How could this happen here?” links the preponderance of suburban coverage with the absence of urban coverage, and begs the question, “Why did it not happen over there?” This juxtaposition of Columbine against other areas demonstrates tensions between the perceptions of suburban and urban interaction.

Part 2: "How could it happen here in this nice, quiet, middle-class community?": Corrupting the Suburban Sanctuary
Part 3: "The corrupting influences of modern American culture": The Technologies of Deviance

[Read more of my long-form writing about history, the media, and American culture: "The Strength of Street Knowledge": Media Representations of the Political Discourse of Gangsta Rap and the Pathology of Blackness: Colonizing Harlem in Collective Memory, 1964-1995.]

Footnotes:

[1] “NBC Evening News for Wednesday, Apr 21, 1999 - Headline: Littleton, Colorado / School Shooting,” NBC Evening News for Wednesday, Apr 21, 1999 (NBC, April 21, 1999), 629395, Vanderbilt Television News Archive, http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/program.pl?ID=629395.
[2] David Cullen, Columbine (New York: Twelve, 2009), 41–51.
[3] Mary Deyoung, “Moral Panics: The Case of Satanic Day Care Centers,” in Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction, ed. Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2003); Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980).
[4] Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
[5] Leon Botstein and Fearn Cutler, Jefferson’s Children: Education and The Promise of American Culture, 1st edition (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 15; Arnold P. Goldstein, School Violence (Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 202.
[6] Botstein and Cutler, Jefferson’s Children, 4–5.
[7] “NBC Evening News Apr 21 1999”; “Video: April 20, 1999: Eyewitness Accounts of Shooting,” ABC News (ABC, April 20, 1999), http://abcnews.go.com/Archives/video/columbine-school-shooting-eyewitness-9956273; Jay Bookman, “After Littleton: ‘We Can’t Win Back the Innocence Those Students Lost.’ Our Fears Took a Very Real Form at Columbine High School: [Home Edition],” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 25, 1999; Gil Whiteley, “Lost Innocence: [Rockies Edition],” Denver Post, April 25, 1999.
[8] Joel Best, Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 6–7.
[9] Bill Osgerby, Youth Media (London ; New York: Routledge, 2004).
[10] James Garbarino, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (New York: Free Press, 1999); James Garbarino and Claire Bedard, Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life (Free Press, 2001); Best, Threatened Children; Kimberly M Williams, Socially Constructed School Violence: Lessons from the Field (New York: P. Lang, 2005); Denise M. Bonilla, School Violence (New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000); Julie A. Webber, Failure to Hold: The Politics of School Violence (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, 2003); Gregory K. Moffatt, Blind-Sided: Homicide Where It Is Least Expected (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2000); Doriane Lambelet Coleman, Fixing Columbine: The Challenge to American Liberalism (Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press, 2002).
[11] Burton St. John and Kirsten A. Johnson, eds., News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2012), 1.
[12] Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 7, 122.
[13] Steven Maras, Objectivity in Journalism (Cambridge, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013), 28–31.
[14] Schudson, Discovering the News, 7–10; Michael Schudson, The Power of News (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), 6.
[15] Schudson, Discovering the News, 160, 178; Maras, Objectivity in Journalism, 1.
[16] Christopher B. Daly, Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 397.
[17] Schudson, The Power of News, 6–9.
[18] Daly, Covering America, ix–xi, 6.
[19] Ibid., xii; C. Edwin Baker, Advertising and a Democratic Press (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1994).
[20] Sharon Meraz, “The Sociality of News Sociology: Examining User Participation and News Selection Practices in Social Media News Sites,” in News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism, ed. Burton St. John and Kirsten A. Johnson (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2012), 78–79.
[21] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 19.
[22] Ibid., 36.
[23] Garbarino, Lost Boys, 3.