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03.03.12

Why Do We Keep Telling The Same False Stories About School Shooters?

Columbine to Chardon, our explanations for why students shoot their classmates are often misinformed, if not completely wrong. Dave Cullen has ways to stop the myth machine.

If there was one positive to emerge from the horrific school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, this week, it was that T.J. Lane, the alleged shooter, lived through the crime. In doing so, Lane may have inadvertently helped to slow the myth machine that kicks into gear after every similar attack.

In Chardon, it took just 24 hours for two storylines to emerge: that Lane was bullied, and that he was targeting specific students.

On Tuesday morning—one day after the attack—CBS This Morning’s Charlie Rose, who normally avoids sensationalism, stated that Lane’s suspected motive was revenge.

On Wednesday, Marlo Thomas wrote a Huffington Post column titled “Tragedy in Ohio: When the Bullied Strike Back.”

Now we have learned about a history of domestic violence in Lane’s home. Prepare for a fresh round of stories blaming a cycle of violence.

But despite Lane’s own confession and assurances from the prosecutor that the bully story was a myth, it has already gained traction, and could persist.

As I’ve toured the country nearly thirteen years after the Columbine shootings, I have found that most people (and most of the media) still believe many of the central “facts” of that crime—all of which were debunked years ago.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—who, of course, took their own lives before anyone could interrogate them—were not outcasts, loners or Goths. They were not targeting jocks or blacks, or seeking revenge for a long-running feud with the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” They did not plan their attack for Hitler’s birthday (a last-minute ammunition problem delayed them for a day).

In the wake of Columbine, some members of my profession grasped how badly we bungled that story, and as a whole we have grown much more cautious about drawing rapid conclusions. But still we jump.

No matter what we eventually discover about the reasons for the murders—with which Lane was charged Thursday—we have to remember that most of the initial conclusions we reach in these tragedies turn out to be wrong. So why are we so prone to producing fresh myths?

One major reason is that we lack key information in the immediate hours and days after an attack. In our desperation to make sense of the insensible, we reach for the scattered fragments of data floating around in the media and online. Some of that data is good, some is bad, but most of it is missing.

No matter what we eventually discover about the reasons for the attack, we have to remember that most of the initial conclusions we reach in these tragedies turn out to be wrong.

Often, the most vital information is withheld for days, and sometimes much longer. Harris’s and Klebold’s journals—the most revealing evidence in the Columbine massacre—were not released for seven years. The families of such killers almost never talk, true friends usually run for cover, and investigators—who are often the first to see an accurate portrait of the killer—are working under a blanket of silence.

There’s a good rationale for that: FBI agents working on the Columbine case told me that witness contamination was the single greatest frustration they dealt with. Eyewitnesses are highly susceptible to the rumor mill, so after a shooter strikes, cops fan out in a race to interview key players before their testimony is influenced by outside sources.

The rise of the Internet has only added to the pressure to find answers faster, as well as to the sheer volume of misleading information publicly available, but the pace of police work remains unchanged.

The unfortunate consequence is that in those crucial early days after an attack, investigators hesitate to “correct” the public story by infusing it with their own tentative conclusions (which can also be wrong). The head of the FBI team at Columbine described working sixteen-hour days, then going home each night and watching in disbelief as the media spooled out its own, largely inaccurate version of the attack. He told me it was as though they were two completely different crimes.

So how do we spot a myth in the making? There are two questions we need to ask whenever we read or hear a report drawing conclusions about an attack: First, does the alleged killer fit the widespread notion of the “shooter profile,” and second, are the witnesses credible for the particular conclusion they are making? (Hint: Witnesses are in no position to draw conclusions; they are credible only, if at all, for making observations.)

As for the profile, conventional wisdom holds that a school shooter is an outcast loner in oddball clothing, exacting revenge for years of bullying.

But there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. Schoolmates who barely knew the killer go right to the usual-suspects checklist. Actual friends can rattle off a dozen adjectives to describe him (and it is virtually always a him), but they inevitably express the ideas they have been taught are relevant, and reporters’ ears perk up every time we hear the magic words: bully, loner, outcast, Goth.

Reporters ask the witness to elaborate, and in doing so we immediately communicate what we think is important. As the interview proceeds, the witnesses key in on what they hear us looking for, and we read it as validation of our theories. No one is intending to mislead, but everyone involved in creating the story leans toward what is perceived to be the “correct answer.”

The bottom line is that when you hear descriptions like these, treat them skeptically: Most are nonsense. An exhaustive study by the Secret Service and the Department of Education stated unequivocally that “there is no accurate or useful profile” of a school shooter. For example, the study found that loners accounted for only one-third of all school shooters.

(Bullying can be an exception: The study found that more than two-thirds of school shooters had been bullied, threatened, attacked or injured prior to their attack. In some cases the bullying was brutal, and probably a primary motive in the shooting. But in other cases it was neither. Bullying bears a definite correlation to school shootings, and should always be investigated as a motive, but never assumed.)

Smart readers will also consider the reliability of any witness the media presents. Problem witnesses come in two stripes: omniscient and universal. An omniscient witness is someone who supposedly has a  direct insight into the gunman’s mind. In the stories pouring out of Chardon, we can attribute the targeting myth to omniscient witnesses and the credulous reporters who repeated their stories.

Consider Danny Komertz, a Chardon High School freshman quoted by CNN, among others.

“I looked straight ahead and I saw a gun pointing at a group of four guys sitting a table,” Komertz said. “He was aiming right at them as he was two feet away. ... He wasn’t shooting around the cafeteria at all. He was directly aiming at the four of them.”

Sounds persuasive, doesn’t it? After all, he was nearly face to face with the killer. But gunmen nearly always aim at someone. During the early minutes of the Columbine attack, Eric Harris shot at everyone he could spot moving outside. His victims were entirely random, but he pointed his rifle at each of them individually.

In other words, as the witness sees it—whether the shooter has trained his gun on a random person or singled out a specific tormentor—it looks exactly the same.

A universal witness is even more common: Many journalists essentially deputize anyone who was in physical or social proximity to the shooter, and treat them as reliable on any facet of the shooter or the crime.

This week, several networks aired lengthy interviews with a boy who admitted he had only seen Lane daily on the bus and spoken to him maybe once. The boy actually resisted characterizing Lane, but the reporters persisted and drew adjectives out of him.

Even the best witnesses will extrapolate. When a classmate suggests Lane was bullied—or quiet, or reserved, or sad—that is based on their limited perspective. Was he actually sad? Or did he just hate biology, the only class where the witness saw him every day?

We are all anxious to comprehend why these tragedies continue to happen. T.J. Lane is alive, so we may yet gain some insight into these and other questions. And despite the misleading media coverage, forensic psychologists since Columbine have studied the patterns and drawn much closer to real understanding. Now we must slow down and avoid leaping to conclusions, or we will remain locked into a false narrative that drives us further and further away from the truth.