Viewpoint: "How" not "why"

BY DYLAN CINTI
Magazine editor
Published July 22, 2012

In his book “Columbine”, a masterfully crafted narrative of the massacre and its aftermath, journalist Dave Cullen recounts the media firestorm that unfolded in the minutes and hours after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates.

Cullen was among the horde of journalists who converged in Littleton, Colo. to cover the story. But for a while no story existed — at least not one that made a whole lot of sense. There was only gunfire, mass hysteria and wild speculation about a massive force of shooters behind Columbine’s sealed walls.

“It was the panic and frustration of not knowing,” Cullen writes, “the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view.”

Why was this happening?

That question prompted a stream of wildly extrapolative stories hinting at a huge conspiracy and propagating the (false) notion that Harris and Klebold were “outcasts” and “loners.”

Citizens of Littleton were in shock. They needed answers. They needed a “why.” And that’s what stories of the Trench Coat Mafia provided. Never mind that the “why” was false. It gave people the comfort of being able to point the finger.

Journalists have a responsibility to narrativize tragedy. To fill in the whos, whats and whys of a scene. But sometimes there are stories where no “why” exists. Columbine was one such story. The shooting in Colorado on Friday is another. These are the stories of senseless killings.

In these cases, narrativizing is tricky business. And when done poorly, it’s dangerous.

Unfortunately, sloppy narrativizing abounds.

It was on CNN, as Cullen points out, that Columbine witnesses described the Trench Coat Mafia as “Goths, gays (and) outcasts.”

That isn’t journalism; it’s fear-mongering. It’s the kind of journalism that makes you question if everyone wearing a long coat is packing heat. Or if all victims of bullying will seek bloody revenge.

I can’t tell you how many headlines I’ve seen in the past few days about the so-called “‘Dark Knight Rises’ Shooting.”

Most of these articles confine discussion of “Rises” to the surface. It was where the shooting happened, thus it makes for a convenient title. I guess I see the logic there. And I’m not going to take pot-shots at lazy titling.

But what are reprehensible are pieces that turn to “Rises” for a motive.

In a silly little piece of tragedy porn published by the Associated Press, the anonymous writer attempts to draw parallels between, among other things, the plot of “Rises” and the Colorado shooting.

The article features a bullet-point list of similarities between “Batman” narratives and that of the Colorado killer, including the assertion that the movie “features at least two scenes where unsuspecting people are attacked in a public venue.”

In its petty and insensitive way, the piece searches for motive. Why’d he do it? Was he trying to be the Joker? Or Bane?

I’m not saying these weren’t the first thoughts that popped into my head when I heard about the shooting. It’s only natural. Someone opens fire at a movie and you look to the movie for answers.

But it becomes dangerous when that kind of thinking infects our news.

At this stage in the story, we shouldn’t be searching for motive. Is it really that important why the killer did what he did? I think I know at least one reason why: attention. And that’s exactly what he’s getting — from pieces about his musical preferences to discussion of his dating site profile.

Such discussions need to end.

We need to turn away from the nonsensical person who did this and focus on the bigger question at hand: how did someone like that get his hands on a gun? How did he walk into a store and walk out wielding an instrument of death?

And knowing that, how could Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper sit in front of a camera and claim the shooting had nothing to do with a lack of gun control?

It has everything to do with gun control. And that’s the most important conversation right now.

In reporting Friday’s shooting, the media owes the victims and their families the kind of coverage that will actively prevent such senseless carnage in the future.

Let’s hope they’re not too busy tracking down the killer’s Twitter feed.

Dylan Cinti is a LSA senior and the Daily’s magazine editor.