Columbine Just Turned 20. Here’s How to Avoid Sensationalizing School Shootings

In marking the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the media was filled with retrospectives that reflected on the dramatic moment in our national relationship with gun violence.

Although Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting, it captured public attention. And it has become a touchstone in conversations about the issue ever since.

But as we talk about Columbine — and other school shootings — it’s important to avoid sensationalizing them. Doing so can increase the risk of copycat events by creating a glorifying effect. And it can be traumatic for survivors of gun violence who need a break from constant media coverage. You may have survivors in your community you don’t even know about, and being proactive about handling these conversations responsibly can make them feel more comfortable.

There are a number of best practices to think about as you discuss this issue, and I’ve rounded up a few for you.

1. Don’t Discuss the Perpetrators in Detail

Many people remember the names of the Columbine killers, along with lots of details about them. That shouldn’t be the case. The shooter(s) should be minimized as much as possible in media coverage and public conversations to take the focus away from them. Their names are not important. Neither are their fashion choices, the bands they listened to, any writings they may have left or anything else.

If there are details about the killers that may inform our approach to preventing gun violence, they can be discussed in appropriate settings. And the media can report the facts of events without focusing on the perpetrators.

2. Don’t ‘Rank’ Shootings

It’s common to see people referring to “the second-deadliest shooting of all time” or “killed nearly as many people as in [an unrelated event].” This kind of ranking can have a glorifying effect that may even encourage people contemplating acts of mass violence to think about ways to make attacks more lethal.

The desire to count and name the victims is understandable, as is the urge to contextualize them alongside other similar mass-casualty events. But try to avoid setting up a situation where a shooting is compared to other tragedies, and avoid superlatives, such as “deadliest” and “worst.”

3. Don’t Forget the Survivors

Society’s focus may be on the people killed or seriously injured in a mass shooting. But survivors are important, too, even if their physical injuries were minor. Witnessing a mass-casualty event can be emotionally traumatic. And that can spill over to people who weren’t there but were affected, including classmates and parents. Those people need to know they’re not alone and that society cares about them, too.

4. Don’t Reinforce Mental Health Stigma — Or Stigmatize Other Marginalized Communities

Mass-casualty events are often blamed on mental illness, even though there’s limited evidence available to say mental illness makes people inherently more dangerous — as well as some evidence to suggest mentally ill people are actually less likely to commit violence. Avoid language that suggests mental health is to blame. And if a perpetrator is or was mentally ill, engage with that information carefully.

Mental illness in itself is not a motivation for gun violence, and neither is belonging to a marginalized group. If a killer happened to belong to a gender or sexual minority, or was a person of color, that’s not why they committed the crime. Don’t engage in rhetoric that suggests people from the same communities as the killer should be subjected to extra surveillance or attention.

5. Do Let Affected Communities Take the Lead

Experiencing a mass-casualty event can be traumatizing and also very disempowering. As they’re surrounded by media attention, survivors may feel helpless. Allowing them to take the lead on how they want to drive the conversation, their goals and their limits can help put them back in control. This was seen to striking effect after the Parkland shooting, where survivors organized a compelling and powerful response to push for change on the national level.

Photo credit: Susan Vineyard/Getty Images

21 comments

Ruth S
Ruth S23 days ago

Thanks.

SEND
Ruth S
Ruth S23 days ago

Thanks.

SEND
Sherry Kohn
Sherry K24 days ago

Many thanks to you !

SEND
Clare O'Beara
Clare O24 days ago

ok

SEND
Clare O'Beara
Clare O24 days ago

Read 'We need to talk about Kevin.' These people will have a history of causing abuses.

SEND
Clare O'Beara
Clare O24 days ago

Quite right to ban the use of the evil person's name or face. Should be done everywhere.

SEND
Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini24 days ago

On the subject of n.1 a useful lesson can be learned from how Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, banned all use of the name and face of the perpetrator of the Chistchurch killings. His name is never mentioned and his face was whited-out in shots of him arriving in the courthouse for indictment. This was to avoid him becoming an iconic figure for like-minded extemists. Good thinking Jacinda!

SEND
Anne M
Anne M24 days ago

I find it hard to believe this happened 20 years ago.. - Like Bob Seger says in his song,, 'Against the Wind',, - '' 20 years,, where'd they go ?? '' - Meanwhile,, gov has failed to stop all the carnage, as it keeps happening again and again, and again...

SEND
Alea C
Alea C24 days ago

Twenty years later and still no gun control.

SEND
Danuta W
Danuta W25 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

SEND