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Back-to-School Special

The media go on a Columbine rampage.

And that's not the only way in which Channel 9 has stumbled. As noted in the September Brill's Content, a media mag overseen by Court TV creator Steven Brill, the station went live during the April 20 siege with comments from a guy who said he was a Columbine student. When he turned out to be a Utah snowboarder, the embarrassment wasn't Channel 9's alone; CNN, the New York Times and other major news organs used the interview as well.

Also in the current Content is a letter from Denver Post staffer Mark Obmascik chiding the magazine for "In Their Backyard," an article written for the July/August edition by Julie Scelfo. The worshipful piece, which described the Rocky Mountain News' coverage of Columbine in the immediate aftermath of the massacre (and the alleged thinking behind that coverage), was practically a press release for News editor John Temple, who was described as "the kind of journalist colleagues casually describe as brilliant and competitors regard warily." Although Scelfo offered a few less-than-flattering details -- the News running a funeral notice for a student who was still very much in the land of the living and wrongly identifying another Columbiner as a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia -- Obmascik pointed out that she made no mention of an April 24 item by frequently unreliable gossip columnist Norm Clarke about the discovery of an alleged suicide note left on the Internet by gunman Eric Harris, a "scoop" almost immediately dismissed by police as completely bogus. "If the New York Times or the Washington Post got suckered by an Internet hoax, called a live person dead, and erroneously labeled a teenager as a member of a controversial school clique, would you run the same puffy story?" Obmascik asks. (Last month The American Journalism Review published a much duller, but less puffy, account of the Post's Columbine response.)

Still, "In Their Backyard" does open a window onto the News' decision-making in regard to Columbine, particularly Temple's determination to concentrate on victims, be they dead or alive. But what was justifiable early on has become increasingly annoying with the passage of time. The News has run a staggering number of how-are-they-doing-now? reports, many on the slenderest pretexts imaginable- -- like the remodeling of survivor Sean Graves's home, which was celebrated with a not-exactly-fascinating August 10 cover photo of Graves's father and younger brother standing by some bare wood. The paper has also displayed an appetite for ghoulishness, epitomized by an August 6 article about what would have been the late Rachel Scott's eighteenth birthday. On one hand, it's hard to blame the News for going ahead with such a story, particularly since Scott's parents clearly cooperated with it and perhaps even encouraged it. But by playing it big and up front, with not one, but two splashy color photos of the dead girl's grave, the News risked coming across as more delighted about the scoop than sensitive to the feelings of the readership as a whole.

Veteran News scribe Gene Amole addressed such media saturation in an August 15 column headlined "Let Columbine Open Media-Free." Amole cast most of the blame for the state of affairs on television, even going so far as to imply that "the emergence of around-the-clock cable news networks" was responsible for print excesses. But, he added, "we get caught up in the competitive necessity to report in greater depth than the story probably deserves because we are afraid if we don't, our competitor will. In a newspaper war, we dare not give them that edge." Unfortunately, any weight this argument might have carried was instantly undercut by its presence inside an edition of the News positively laden with articles and photographs guilty of nearly every sin Amole catalogued. The cover was dominated by a photo of people who had survived the rampage in the school library and a banner that read "Reclaiming Columbine: Students going back Monday hope for a 'normal' return to school" -- something the News' approach couldn't help but prevent. Inside was more of the same: "Moving On," a compendium of observations by students that was virtually indistinguishable from countless others published in the News since April; "Teen Survivors Celebrate the Better Days," which zeroed in on another batch of students; "A New Start," a Q&A with Columbine sophomores who somehow had escaped grilling in the other two efforts; and "Rockin' Back to School," a report about a Christian-oriented concert at 18,000-seat Fiddler's Green that attracted "hundreds of teens" interested in again hearing the Columbine anthem "Friend of Mine." For a change of pace, "Rockin'" reporter Laura Watt quoted students from schools other than Columbine -- maybe because there were no Columbine students left to talk to.

In comparison with the News' Columbine dog-piling, the Post has been considerably more restrained. The Post, too, has run more than its share of unnecessary Columbine stories and put questionable emphasis on others, like the keen-grasp-of-the-obvious August 16 report "Churches Support Columbine Students," about sermons at south Jeffco houses of worship. But in the past several weeks, the Post has run considerably fewer Columbine articles than the News and at times has actually attempted to examine some of the issues raised by the shootings rather than simply milking them again. On August 15, for instance, the Post put out a "Back to School" supplement that used Columbine as a jumping-off point to examine questions of safety and community at schools everywhere. There were few revelations contained therein, but the section's emphasis on analysis over melodrama was a welcome step in the right direction.

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