- Posted April 16, 2009 by
San Diego, California
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Media Spin & Fearmongering Caused Unnecessary Social Damage
Ten years ago, I was in my senior year of high school. A week before my eighteenth birthday, the Columbine incident happened. I went through a wave of emotions and could not get enough of the news coverage. I was one of the "goth" kids at school and already had gotten enough flack for the way I dressed and my differently colored/styled hair. I felt so terrible for the kids and teacher who had lost their lives and could not believe that anyone could be so callous, but at the same time, based on the reports that they were picked on for listening to a certain type of music and wearing certain clothing, I also felt bad for the perpetrators.
Shortly following Columbine, I was interviewed for Teen People magazine, to provide my outlook as an "outsider" in high school - how I was treated, how I handled it, and my views on how judgmental my peers (and adults) could be. Once I received a proof copy, I realized that my story was drastically edited and words were attributed to me that I did not say. This frustrated me, but there was not much I could do about the situation other than hope that some portions of my original message would be seen by those who needed to see it.
Just before the issue hit newsstands, I was invited to take part in a special program that Dateline NBC & Teen People were putting together. It was a panel of teens from around the country who would give their insight on school security, bullying, parental involvement, internet socialization, cliques, and other issues we faced. I agreed to participate, as I felt that it could be a more real & open outlet to say what I had to say, where it would be more candid and less censored.
To prepare for the show, I started doing research on the Columbine incident itself. Many facts had come to light and had not actually been reported by the major media outlets. The media had blamed rock music and violent video games; claimed that Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold always wore trenchcoats and all-black clothing; that they obsessed over Nazi literature and carried out the attacks on April 20th due to that being Hitler's birthday; that they were regularly picked on; had a list of enemies/targets; and that they shot Cassie Bernall for saying she believed in God.
This is what I found out: Yes, they listened to rock music. They didn't frequently wear trenchcoats. They were not racists, they were sociopaths who disregarded everyone, no matter what their heritage. They were actually the bullies, according to Eric Harris' own journal writings, frequently picking on freshmen and other people who seemed weaker. Their "enemies" list was mostly made up of people who had already graduated from Columbine. And poor Cassie Bernall, who was allegedly killed for professing her faith? She lost her life because she was in the wrong place, at the wrong time - and investigators have since stated that they do not believe that the now-mythical verbal exchange took place. I went to New York, armed with these and many other bits of information that I had collected both from trawling through volumes of both direct and media accounts, as well as from acquaintances who witnessed the incident for themselves or knew people who did.
The special was hosted by Katie Couric, who - in person - seemed rather shocked by a lot of what was said by a few of us. Those of us who knew better denied that video games, music, or being part of a clique had anything to do with what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out at Columbine. We assured her that there was no real Trenchcoat Mafia, based on what people who attended the school had to say, and that there was nothing to fear from people who chose to dress in all black or people who listened to songs that weren't about puppy love. Much of what we had to say was edited to make it seem like we blamed the jocks for what happened and like we were playing the victims in our own experiences with bullying and being ostracized. This was far from the truth.
My experience of being on the panel mirrored how the media handled the incident as a whole. They were fearmongers that created an even more intolerant environment for teens to deal with, by grabbing onto every senational nuance they could find and pushing their stories as fact. The rumors that were filtered through or created within production offices & newsrooms were almost all based on falsehoods and exaggerations. As a result, the public were afraid of the "goths" and "punks" and "metalheads" at school. Parents - often successfully - lobbied to get trenchcoats and all-black attire banned in their local schools. School administrators started considering these groups to be "gangs" and harassment of students was rampant, with unwarranted backpack searches, detainment in the hallways by security guards, and being called into the administrative offices for questioning. All of this simply because of the students' clothing and/or chosen music preferences. Teens learned that if they didn't like someone, they could simply report to administrators that the person had an "enemies list" and the school would quickly swoop in to rectify the situation - even when it wasn't the truth - and since there was no stopping the local rumor mill, the accused would forever be known as "the kid with the list" and ostracized. This continued for a couple years, until the media and the country, as a whole, had 9/11 on which to shift their focus.
School shootings seemed to have tapered off since then or at least the reporting on them has. I'm not sure if it's because we've created a generation of kids with entitlement issues, due to parents mollycoddling their children in the hopes that they wouldn't flip out, or if it's a variety of factors, potentially including the events surrounding 9/11 and giving the current generation something to focus upon and fight against. Personally, I lean more toward assuming the latter. And look at the things that are prevalent in the preferences with the current youth: "emo" and hard rock music; clothing that is an amalgamation of the goth, punk, and metal styles from the 80s and 90s; tatooos/piercings; wild hair colors and styles - all of the things that were looked down upon around the time of the Columbine incident. It's like the generation following mine has almost done a complete 180 degree turn. They're self-aware and far more likely to embrace creative expression.
Two things definitely remain the same, though. The media is still sensationalizing every story it can dig its talons into and - sadly - teens still tend to shun those who are different than they are, rather than having an eclectic mix of friends from different backgrounds. I doubt either one of these will ever change, as people enjoy the entertainment aspect that the "news" provides and teenagers will always be awkward & unsure of themselves, searching to belong until they realize that life is about pursuing happiness, rather than homogeneity.