Parkland coverage, 12 months later

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Coverage of the 2018 school shooting may be marginally better than it was 20 years ago after Columbine, but it’s still not nearly good enough.

By Alexander Russo

Dave Cullen, who wrote the definitive book about the 1999 Columbine tragedy, has a new book out about last year’s Parkland, Florida school shooting in which 14 students and three educators were killed.

You might have seen an excerpt in BuzzFeed, or heard him on NPR, or read interviews with him in New York magazine or the Columbia Journalism Review.

As part of the book rollout, Cullen wrote a piece in The Guardian generally praising the media for its coverage of the large-scale tragedy, especially compared with coverage of the 1999 Columbine school shooting.

In the piece, Cullen offers an unsparing critique of the Columbine coverage — including his own mistakes — and credits the media coverage of Parkland for avoiding previous mistakes such as falling into a premature, simplistic narrative and giving perpetrators any more attention than necessary.

“Hardly any journalists could recall the Parkland shooter’s name – even those who had covered the story,” writes Cullen about his interviews with reporters. Former Parkland student and Movement For Our Lives leader David Hogg is, according to Cullen, “the first mass shooting victim to become more famous than his attacker.”

As big a fan as I am of Cullen, and as eager as I am to read his new book, I’m much less sanguine about the media’s performance than he seems to be.

The national coverage I’ve seen this past year has been riddled with its own issues, including a problematic focus on a narrow storyline, sloppy reporting about the prevalence of school shootings, and a lack of substantive follow-up.

In other words: not all that different from 20 years ago.

One big exception: The South Florida Sun Sentinel’s dogged, creative, and powerful scrutiny of the tragedy over the past 12 months, which has stood far above the pack.

“The work by the Sun-Sentinel’s reporters reminds us of what journalism can and should be,” wrote two parents of students killed at the school last year.

They’re right.

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cullen guardian piece

In The Guardian, Cullen argues that media coverage of Parkland is much improved since Columbine, 20 years ago.

In The Guardian piece, From Columbine to Parkland: how we got the story wrong on mass shootings, Cullen faults himself and other Columbine reporters for initially falling for a convenient, sexy, but inaccurate theme, thus “botching the story.”

As you may recall, the media focused initially on the mistaken notion that the Columbine perpetrators were outcast loners who had been bullied by jocks. This didn’t turn out to be the case, but the urge to find a coherent explanation was so powerful that reporters including Cullen fell into line behind it, despite their misgivings. By the time news outlets realized their errors and corrected the story, it was too late. The narrative was baked.

“We got it wrong,” writes Cullen. “Absurdly wrong. We were shocked and horrified and desperate for answers, serving a public hungry for a reason for the ‘madness,’ so we found an answer.” Unfortunately, it was the wrong answer.

Making matters worse, reporters and news outlets weren’t yet entirely aware that focusing on the perpetrators could increase the chances of copycat perpetrators. The Columbine killers’ names and biographies were repeated endlessly by Cullen and others, eclipsing the identities of the victims and serving as an unintended model for subsequent killers.

For more about the flawed coverage of that event, check out the New York Times’ 2015 retro report, When Columbine Is Invoked, Fears Tend to Overshadow Facts.

Looking at the past 12 months, Cullen rightly points to progress on the “no notoriety” front, which is a journalistic effort to avoid making mass shooters famous (or even naming them).

But his article is otherwise much less detailed in his observations of the post-Parkland coverage — and much less compelling.

He seems to be telling us that there’s been no massive media misstep in terms of how it has covered the Parkland tragedy and the aftermath. The flaws of the post-Columbine coverage haven’t repeated themselves.

Unpopular as it may be to say, I’m not so sure.

From where I sit, the past 12 months have been chock-full of flawed media coverage related to Parkland in particular and school gun violence generally.

Accuracy has been a big problem — even the accurate reporting of the number of school gun incidents remains a challenge — as has lack of follow-up. The narrow focus of the coverage on gun control advocacy is another critical area.

Yes, there’s a serious gun violence problem in America that needs to be addressed. Too many young people are being killed by guns each year. Gun control is a valid angle to the Parkland story.

But it isn’t the only one. There is so much more to Parkland than the issue of easy access to guns and the shocking but atypical deaths of students in schools.

Yet national media outlets generally homed in on the notion that the Parkland tragedy was primarily a gun control story and that school gun deaths had become epidemic.

And so, along with some important progress on gun safety legislation, the result has been an expensive emphasis on “hardening” schools against attacks and potential traumatization for parents who believe that school shootings are commonplace and for students and teachers who experience “active shooter” drills.

As Erika Christakis notes in her piece in The Atlantic on the spread of active shooter drills nationwide, deaths from shootings on school grounds “remain extremely rare.” The scale of preparedness efforts is “out of proportion to the risk.”

Not convinced? Hidden in a new story published by the Miami Herald about gun deaths over the past 12 months is the news that just 25 of the nearly 1,200 deaths of young people have been school shootings. That’s barely more than 2 percent.

So maybe the media is doing a little bit better than it did during Columbine at providing accurate information to the public, but not by all that much.

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Cullen’s book focuses on the kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who led the March for Our Lives effort. You can order it here.

Cullen’s upbeat take on media coverage of Parkland is contradicted by some of those most closely involved.

Ryan Petty and Andrew Pollack, two parents of Parkland students killed in the attack, sharply criticized national news coverage in a recent op-ed, describing “click-hungry national news sites and controversy-mongering cable news networks” focused narrowly on the hot-button issue of gun control.

Calling Parkland “the most avoidable mass murder in American history,” the parents lament the lack of attention paid to school district and local law enforcement officials who they claim have exhibited incompetence and corruption. They single out a Washington Post story that mistakenly “exonerated the Broward school district four days after the tragedy.”

For these parents, the questions about the Parkland tragedy aren’t limited to how the shooter obtained a gun and how to limit gun access in the future. They include how the shooter was allowed to re-enroll at the massive high school or left without the supervision and support he obviously needed, how he got on campus that day or was allowed to continue shooting students and teachers for so long, and how the school district has failed to implement adequate safety measures in the intervening months.

By and large, these parents are right. There were memorable bits of follow-up by the national press, including a Washington Post interview with the school resource officer who stood outside the building rather than going in and trying to stop the violence. National outlets have occasionally returned to the Parkland story, but largely to mark events such as the anniversary this week or to report on what’s changed since the killing.

But in-depth follow-ups have been few and far between. Too little attention has been given to the messy, mundane story of what happened, how it could have been prevented, and questions surrounding the performance of school authorities and local law enforcement – issues that could plague any number of schools nationwide.

If there is any praise to bestow, the two Parkland fathers write in their op-ed, it belongs to The South Florida Sun Sentinel. That paper alone covered “the real story” of what happened, including faulty disciplinary measures that allowed repeat offenders to continue attending school and the district’s failure to report incidents of violence and bullying as required by law. It alone kept after the story, month after month, they say.

Indeed, the Sun Sentinel stands out. Journalists including Scott Travis, Megan O’Matz, Brittany Wallman, David Flesher, Stephen Hobbs, and John Maines have focused doggedly on the school district’s role, reporting on misstatements and stonewalling from school officials, as well as efforts to degrade the paper’s credibility and failures to respond to safety recommendations.

You can read the archive of Parkland coverage from the Sun Sentinel here.

hide spin deny theaten ss parkland

This Sun Sentinel story about the school district’s efforts to distract attention from its role in the Parkland tragedy is one of many cited by the Parkland parents who criticize national coverage. 

Cullen may address deeper journalistic issues in the book, and of course he gets to write about whatever he thinks is most important. He should be admired for his analysis of how the media mischaracterized the Columbine story and his self-reflection about his role in it.

“I had no idea that I might be playing a role, and bear some responsibility for the children still dying around us two decades later,” he writes in The Guardian.

There are few journalists who have admitted fault so openly and so clearly.

Cullen also deserves praise for writing honestly about mental health issues that he and many other journalists who write about trauma face in their own lives. For that alone, we should all buy the book.

So it feels awful to suggest that Cullen may have fallen into another mistaken narrative, this one focused on March For Our Lives and the gun control storyline. Gun control has been the March For Our Lives focus, it has been the media’s focus, and it seems to be Cullen’s focus, too.

It’s totally understandable. Gun control and March For Our Lives are big, dramatic storylines that are conveniently aligned with many journalists’ personal beliefs. But they are only part of the Parkland story. Parkland is not just one thing, one idea, or one group of people.

Cullen declined to be interviewed and responded to an email summarizing the concerns raised here with the following: “I went down to Parkland and wrote about what I thought was and is the most vital, breakthrough aspect of this tragedy. I went for five weeks and was so impressed that I spent ten months – and wrote a book about it. That will have to speak for itself.”

Meantime, the anniversary of the Parkland shooting is Thursday. April 20 will be the 20th anniversary of the murders at Columbine. In some fundamental ways, the issue remains the same. With the occasional exception, the national media parachutes in, finds a convenient storyline that may or may not match the salient facts, then skips town. Fleshing out the story is left to local newsrooms.  It’s hard work and, at least initially, less sexy. But it’s the work to which journalists must commit themselves.

Related columns:

Misleading coverage of school shootings in 2018

Worst education journalism of the 2017-2018 school year

The problem with Parkland

Alexander Russo is founder and editor of The Grade, an award-winning effort to help improve media coverage of education issues. He's also a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship winner and a book author. You can reach him at @alexanderrusso.

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