A few days ago marked the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, in which two senior students in Colorado killed twelve students and one teacher before ultimately killing themselves. The crime received extensive news coverage and inspired many copycats and a Michael Moore film, Bowling for Columbine.
Early reportage of high-profile events (and especially tragedies and attacks) typically involve some element of mistaken reporting and misinformation; it’s simply the nature of the news-gathering process. Usually journalists correct the misinformation fairly quickly, though even when they do, it provides fodder for conspiracy theorists who point to clarifications and corrections as a “changing story,” when in fact it’s nothing of the sort.
Last year I reported on a shooting at a nightclub in Thousand Oaks, California, that conspiracy theorists (and a science communicator!) claimed was “mysteriously” silent and did not match footage of the attack. Some even suggested that the entire attack—which left nearly as many people dead as Columbine—had been staged and was a “false flag” event. For more see my Center for Inquiry blog “Mystery Of The Borderline Bar Silent Shooting.”
Here I want to focus on two specific aspects of rumor and misinformation about the Columbine attack that were not immediately debunked, and which, two decades later, remain part of the story despite being debunked.
The Mythical ‘Martyr’
In the April 20 massacre, a Christian student named Cassie Bernall gained posthumous fame when a friend claimed she defiantly affirmed her belief in God when the shooters threatened her. Early eyewitness reports claimed that one of the shooters confronted Bernall and asked if she believed in God. Bernall, fearing for her life, bravely answered “yes” before being shot and killed.
Cassie’s mother, Misty Bernall, wrote a book titled She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. The book recounted Cassie’s journey from a troubled youth obsessed with death rock and vampires to an upstanding Christian. It had all the elements of a good Christian redemption story: a lost child who found her path in Jesus, only to be killed for defending her faith before Satan’s merciless thugs. After the book’s publication, the Bernalls made the media rounds, giving interviews and even appearing on televangelist Robert Schuller’s Sunday television show, telling their story to millions. As it turned out, Cassie’s martyrdom was in fact unlikely—and unlikely to be true.
Investigators showed that Cassie was almost certainly not the young woman who had this exchange with her killers, but that it was a girl nearby, Valeen Schnurr. The shooter asked if Schnurr believed in God; she said yes and the gunman spared her. Instead of Bernall dying for affirming her faith, Schnurr lived by affirming hers.
Prior to publication, questions regarding the book’s accuracy were brought to Plough, the small Christian publishing house that handled the book. Although the very premise of the book was in substantial doubt, both Plough and the Bernalls decided to release it, and it soon became a New York Times best-seller. Making money and promoting their faith were apparently more important than telling the truth.
The Mythical ‘Trenchcoat Mafia’
In the days following the shootings at Columbine High School, the news media descended on the school, searching for new angles on the story. One student, Mike Smith, told reporters he was a point guard for the Columbine basketball team. Reporters asked him about the shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Smith told the press that the pair were part of a powerful “Trenchcoat Mafia,” who were bullied while school officials ignored the problem. The implication was clear: the worst mass school shooting was (at least partly) the result of bullying. Many news outlets, including USA Today, ran the story without checking the facts.
However Mike Smith was not who he claimed to be; the stories he told were made up, and in fact there was no Columbine student named Mike Smith. Furthermore, though there was a so-called “Trenchcoat Mafia” at Columbine, they were a loose-knit group of gamers, not involved in threats or violence at all and had no connection to bullying. Nor were Harris and Klebold ever members of the Trenchcoat Mafia. Yet the rumors were reported as fact.
Rumors make news for several reasons. Sometimes it’s simply sloppy reporting. Often, the pressure of trying to be first on the air with some new scoop or breaking news leaves little time for fact checking. Because of increased competition and declining TV ratings, all too often news departments would rather be first with a story than be right about it. Because of confirmation bias, people should always question their assumptions–and especially question the assumptions that fit their expectations.