April 20th, 2009
07:30 AM ET

Covering Columbine – 10 years ago today

Students walk through a passageway connecting Norris Hall to another building at Virginia Tech.

Students walk through a passageway connecting Norris Hall to another building at Virginia Tech.

Kay Jones
AC360° Coordinating Editorial Producer

I’ve been reading a book about the Columbine High School shootings and it got me thinking about where I was 10 years ago, as well as how things have changed in the way we cover a story such as a school shooting. I’m one of those weird people who remembers almost everything when it involves key points in my life and that includes the major stories I’ve covered.

The day of the Columbine shooting, I was sitting in our newsroom at WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee, watching all of the networks cover the story. I had on a white shirt and blue pants. Weird, I know, but these are the random things I remember. Our entire newsroom watched the many screens on all the networks as they were streaming the Denver stations live. At some point in the afternoon, we had a staff meeting to talk about how we cover it, and make it interesting for our local audience. Unfortunately, we knew all too well how to cover this story: just a little over a year before, two boys under the age of 13 had opened fire on their classmates evacuating their middle school after one of them pulled the fire alarm. Five were dead and 10 injured. The Jonesboro school shootings were the third that happened within our viewing area during the 1997-1998 school year and we had plenty of ideas on how to relate what was going on at Columbine to people in the Mid-South.

Almost eight years to the day later, The Virginia Tech shootings happened. I was sitting in the airport in New Orleans waiting for my delayed flight, after the previous two were canceled the day before due to weather. After reading the numerous blackberry messages on how bad the shooting was, I called in to see if I needed to go. I got a “yes, please” before I finished my question, managed to get my bag off the plane, and booked myself on another airline for a flight to Virginia to cover the story.

The reason I bring up both of these shootings are not only that their anniversaries are this month, but that there were so many similarities with not only the coverage but the advances made in technology, and how they aided the news stations with getting the story out. Weird as it sounds, the Columbine shootings were really the first school shooting where cell phones played a prominent role. In 1999, beepers and pagers were still a pretty active way of staying in touch with your teenager. Although cell phones were picking up in popularity, they were still not the standard that they are today. However, at Columbine, students were calling in to local news stations to talk about what they were seeing, as they were hiding out from the shooters. Many students and teachers were able to call into 911 from the school and gave accounts of where the shooters were, how many were injured and what they were seeing. I can’t remember the station, but one had to tell the student to get off the phone because there was a fear the shooters would hear her location and come after her.

Almost eight years to the day after Columbine, Virginia Tech saw its campus under fire. This time, camera phones were becoming the big thing, and an alert student emailed his video into CNN’s iReport site that eerily included sounds of gunshots. We were able to verify the pictures and where it came from pretty quickly and get the video on air. It really gave us a sense of terror that many of the students who were near the building where the majority of shootings happened faced. Because of the location, we didn’t have a ton of photos and video coming in early on, so we relied on the video and pictures those on the scene sent to our iReport site. Once again, we saw how technology really changed the way we reported on this story.

In a perfect world, we would never have to cover a school shooting again. Of all the stories I’ve covered from both the newsroom to the field, these always are the hardest and worst to cover. But the reality is, something will happen again involving teenagers and young adults, and because of this, we’ll see how the next great technology will impact the way we report on these stories.

Filed under: Gun Violence • Kay Jones • The Buzz
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    Hard to believe its been ten years; in some ways it seems longer and more remote and in other ways it seems like it was yesterday. I wish that by now we had learned how to stop these attacks or prevent them but we haven't and we may never will. I know though that school isn't the safe haven it once was and that touches all of us.....I never thought of how much I took for granted on the safety of school until Columbine.

    April 20, 2009 at 6:14 pm |
  2. Isabel (Brazil)

    It is so sad to think that young people had a life ahead.
    It is suffocating the overwhelming thought that they were desperate and nobody can see or feel the despair and help them.

    I also remember the striking facts of a impressive
    way, as you described. The worst of all, for me, it is still 9 / 11. I was starting my professional life and my boss brought a portable TV to stay next to the servers.
    Oh, and I always had curiosity to know where people were during the day. You, Mr. Cooper, Erica Hill ...

    Why these dark days are so striking?

    April 20, 2009 at 9:34 am |
  3. Susan Vaughn

    Excellent story. Cell phones with cameras have become the necessary tool for immediate news reporting. I believe that the technology that we take for granted now has been a blessing in saving lives.

    I can hardly believe it has been 10 years since the Columbine shootings. As strange as it seems I also remember the day JFK was shot, the day Robert Kennedy was shot, the day Martin Luther King was shot, 9/11, the Columbine shootings, the day Diana died. Isn't it odd how we recall with great clarity tragic events throughout our lifetime and these become markers of our life rather than poignant and positive moments? I wonder why that is. What is it about tragedy that stands out as being so powerful? Maybe it's the loss of innocent lives and realizing how blessed we are. Maybe we expect the blessings and are traumatized when life is cut short so dramatically and unnecessarily. Whatever the reason, as I reflect on this I realize that it is a good thing for all that are living to remember those who died for us, those who died in war, those who died tragically, those who died young, those who died from illness – if for no other reason than to reflect on our own lives and blessings and make the most of each day we have with our friends and family.

    Susan Vaughn

    April 20, 2009 at 9:09 am |
  4. Deborah P. Gatti

    I cannot believe that it is 10 yrs. my oldest was in 8th grade and this was the unthinkable playing out before our eyes. The question becomes what have we learned from Columbine? In New York legislation was passed to attempt to make our schools safer. It required more security and fingerprints. Are we safer? I hope so, but can passing a law really make us safe? It is sad that kids cannot be kids anymore. I never remember worrying about someone coming in to my school and shooting at anyone. Now we teach our youngest of students how to hide and remain quiet. What are we coming to as a society? Take a moment to pause and reflect today and to pray for those families.

    April 20, 2009 at 9:09 am |
  5. Herman

    For Anderson,

    Reading you blog I sense the difficulty of a day
    like this. To take on something of this magnitude would overwhelm
    anyone who cares enough to give us the facts. Guidance through
    life is as measured as our willingness to care how far we go. You
    Sir, have given us a real look into a society crying out for help. But
    when humanity won't help itself, the few who do go unnoticed.
    Continue to speak TRUTH to us all. It'll hurt, but we can heal.

    April 20, 2009 at 8:50 am |
  6. betrice torres

    as i woke u 2 a blog from Oprah she said this morning "lets hold a thought for the families" we grieve the ones that were lost what about their families.

    April 20, 2009 at 8:38 am |
  7. Jesse Nicholson - Pittsburgh PA

    I can't believe it's been 10 years. What I can't believe even more, is that after this, and all the horrible tragedies that have followed including Virginia Tech, and most recently the three Police Officers who were just killed in my home town here in Pittsburgh, that there are no meaningful gun laws, and there is not even any movement or impetus to move towards sensible gun laws in this country. How many innocent people, CHILDREN, have to die before we wake up?!?!?

    April 20, 2009 at 8:08 am |
  8. myya pmore

    Great story. You are truly gifted with words and reporting. Your ability to paint a story in the readers mind is unbelievable, you put us there as if we lived the day(s) with you. I'm a marketing grad student in Miami, and recent UF grad. I lived through those tragedies and saw people my age gunned down before their time. I'm doing my final research on how much technology has changed over the years. My research will specifically focus on mobile marketing and how we will one day be able to do the unimaginable w the touch of our cell phones. Great read. You have provided me with a new perspective!

    April 20, 2009 at 8:02 am |