SPJ president: After Aurora theater shootings, visions of covering tragedy at Columbine

Following is an essay that first ran on northjersey.com on July 20:

Oh no. Not again.

It’s hard for me to describe the heart-sinking, knot-in-the-stomach feeling I had upon hearing the news about the mass killings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Like anyone, I am saddened by this senseless tragedy. But the killing of 12 moviegoers and wounding of dozens more triggered an immediate response in the back of my brain.


I was a reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News on April 20, 1999 when two teenagers went on a killing rampage, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

That day was the start of my spring vacation. As was my habit, I tried to disconnect from the news on my time off. It was a bright, beautiful day and I had a ticket to go see the Colorado Rockies play a baseball game at Coors Field.

That game never happened. I vividly remember stepping out of the shuttle bus in downtown Denver on my way to the ball park when I saw a strange sight, people hawking my newspaper.

The Rocky had put out a rare extra edition with news of the massacre and headlines set in the kind of type size normally reserved for war and natural disasters.

I bought a paper and stepped back onto the shuttle, rode it all the way back, walked a few blocks to the newspaper office and reported for duty.

By dusk, I was out in a suburban neighborhood in Jefferson County, talking with people who were neighbors of the houses where the two killers and their families lived. Everyone I talked to was in a state of stunned disbelief.

I don’t mean to exaggerate my role that day. I played a relatively small part in helping to report on a huge, heart-breaking story that was unlike anything my colleagues and I had ever covered before. It was a story that would consume all of us for the months and years that followed.

Besides the fresh sorrow I felt for the families of these latest victims, I’ve been thinking about my colleagues in Denver newsrooms, several of whom also covered Columbine.

They know, as I do, that this is the start of a long, grueling assignment.

Reporters have this instinct, when news happens, we answer the call. Sometimes doing the work is a kind of solace and means of coping with the tragedy we are covering.

But we are human beings as well and not immune from the suffering we’re reporting on – nor should we be.

Like everyone else, our hearts go out to friends and families who are living through this latest nightmare.


Postcript: On July 20, I also discussed media coverage of the shootings on SPJ member Jim Bohannon’s talk radio program in Washington, D.C. Here is a link to the podcast. My conversation with Jim starts about 40 minutes into the program.

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