Monday, April 20, 2009

Remembering Columbine: An Autopsy of Classic Journalism

Here's an essay that I wrote after the Virginia Tech shootings freshman year. I was inspired by the massive societal need to rationally explain the events, and how it reminded me of the Columbine Massacre. If you get the chance, give it a read.

Projecting Our Faith Upon The Blood on the Walls
Henry Vasquez, 2007

April 16, 2007 was a day of mourning and despair for Americans after tragic events ensued on the campus of Virginia Tech University. 32 people were gunned down by a ruthless killer whose motive stemmed from hatred toward rich kids, debauchery, and charlatans. The case rests, yet it simply can’t avoid striking memories of a comparably tragic event 8 years prior in Littleton, Colorado, where two high school students shot and killed 13 people. In both cases, there is clearly a connection between the killers and their social distress, following from an expected societal fascination with finding grand meaning in their motives. This fascination leads to a variety of outcomes—often a deepened understanding about teen violence and sociopathology; however, on occasion it promulgates a false attribution of cultural meaning. Such is the case with the Cassie Bernall dispute in the few months after the shooting at Columbine High School.

Crucial to the understanding of this debate is a clear examination of the facts with respect to the various testimonies of surviving witnesses. The initial testimonies of Joshua Lapp and Craig Scott, survivors of the shooting, claimed that they had heard Cassie Bernall conversing with the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, about her belief in God. One of the shooters allegedly asked Cassie Bernall if she believed in God, and upon her reply “yes,” she was fatally shot. The initial report, perhaps due to journalist excitement, was released prior to complete verification of facts. This led to assumptions by Bernall’s mother and others that the story was indubitably true. Later witnesses Emily Wyant and Valeen Schnurr confirmed that the conversation in fact did take place, but between Schnurr and the shooter, where in which she responded “yes” but was not shot. Ultimately, the witnesses suggested that the plea of Bernall as she cried out “Dear God. Dear God. Why is this happening?” may have led to Scott’s confusion, and that the timing of Schnurr being asked “Do you believe in God?” with her response “Yes” may have coincided with the gunshot at Bernall. Because of the relative closure surrounding the Bernall story, the late-coming facts which negated the initial information fell on deaf ears.

The result is a perfect example of real-life dramatic irony, where the characters (witnesses) involved failed to see the entirety of the picture, and the audience (ourselves) can see where the confusion derived. To synthesize a profound sociological perspective on this issue, we must consider the following: 1) In what way is the narration of the Cassie Bernall story effective in delivering a desirable message? 2) How does the Evangelical Christian reaction to the story give it grand meaning? 3) Why do the late-coming facts that denied the story have little sensationalist allure? And finally, 4) Why does most of America still believe the story of Cassie Bernall? The result of exploring the primary news scripts and editorials released concerning the Bernall narrative, in conjunction with a more expansive look on the sensationalism of the Evangelical Christian movement, is a testament to the power of these devious processes of attributing cultural meaning to tragic incidences throughout American culture.

To investigate the careful methodology by which the narration delivers a desirable message, one must examine the initial news scripts following the incident. The Joshua Lapp testimony claims that he heard Bernall being questioned by Klebold and the response preceeding her death. ''She said it,'' Lapp said Thursday. ''Plain and simple.'' His proximity to the conversation made him a reliable witness. His claim was affirmed when Scott, who was further from the incident, stated that he heard the same conversation and was sure that it was Bernall’s voice. This seemed to be enough information to release the story, though two other witnesses, who perhaps were at a more advantageous proximity, held dissenting accounts. Emily Wyant, who was within a few feet of Bernall when she was shot, stated that the original testimony was mistaken, yet her account was never given just exposure. The sociological dynamic which emerged so obvious from these discrepancies is that even when the minority is right, if what the majority says is more desirable to a given audience, they will likely accept it regardless of validity. But why was the first message so much more desirable? The answer lies in the innate need for heroic narrative in American culture. In the same way that the 9-11 attacks were transformed from tragedy to heroism, so also was the Cassie Bernall story.

Next, we should look to perhaps the most significant meaning-making impetus behind the story: the Evangelical Christian movement. Sparked by rumor and isolated retellings of the myth, the story quickly gained acclaim among churches throughout the United States. Christians around the country were excited to hear a real-life account that invigorated the faith. Emerging from a desperate murder came grand meaning in the form of martyrdom, in the form of unexpected faith where it was found. The finishing catalyst to the hype came when Misty Bernall, Cassie’s mother, wrote a book titled She Said Yes. The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. By this point, there was little substantial skepticism concerning the facts of the story. An excerpt from Christianity Today sheds light on this denial: “Hanna Rosin took the controversy to new levels when she dismissed the encounter as a myth and then made the leap that "myth" alone is sufficient to animate the religious fervor of evangelicals, regardless of whether it is true. ‘It's the power of the story that counts,’ she wrote. ‘The truth is a trifle. Should believers accept the literal truth, they'd be left with a hopeless equation.” Chicago Tribune writer Eric Zorn expressed, "I suspect history will ultimately favor the Bernall myth over the Schnurr facts.” Returning to the broad scope of this analysis, it is evident that it is more than misinformation that incites sensationalist myth, but actual devious processes on the part of journalists and the masses of overzealous listeners.

The question should still be asked: why do the facts have such little sensationalist allure? This, I presume, will invite an exploration of how society defines this case into cultural categories. Youth massacres, such as the Virginia Tech Shootings or Columbine Shootings, are defined as epic deviant violence. There is little ambivalence concerning the malice of involved parties, and there is a clear focus on the connection between the perpetrator’s motives and the specific victims. This allows for any narration to follow a very predictable sequence, one in which the victimization and tragedy of the cases is most heavily emphasized. Along with this predictable sequence comes a predictable reaction from the audience at hand. Individuals know how to react, what to expect next, and what conclusions to draw from whatever gaps in information exist. The journalists in all these cases release a precise amount of information initially, leaving a time period for anticipation and assumptions to kick in, followed by a release of specific major details that are pleasing to the audience. Ultimately, only these self-fulfilled assumptions are given credence. Facts such as the Wyant and Schnurr testimonies do not fit into this rubric, making them less likely to be accepted or desired. Often, once the point of release is reached for these defiant details, there is very little chance for their survival. Thus, the most systematic reason for the lack of allure rests in the ill-timing and disjunction with this anticipation process.

Now that the sensationalism is dead from the Columbine Shooting and the myth of Cassie Bernall, why does most of America still believe her story? As we look at the ill-timed release of Wyant and Schnurr’s testimonies, and the aforementioned stubbornness of anticipation by the masses, it seems that the concern for knowing more about the incidence is entirely dead. To test this notion, I tested the reaction of many of my peers. What I discovered is that almost everyone still believes the Bernall myth, for lack of hearing otherwise. I proceeded to tell them the details of the debated testimonies, and most responded in a similar fashion. I could sense a moderate level of surprise, combined with a frustration for not having heard otherwise, and a general dismissal of harsh criticism toward the validity of the Bernall story. Most seemed to recognize its widespread impact as beneficial to Christian culture even though it was untrue. Most of the contempt I sensed was directed at the media.

What can be learned from these observations is that our modes of defining cultural problems tend to be very rigid. The human mind seems to operate in a way that favors first impressions and fulfilled assumptions. The Columbine Massacre is unanimously defined as a cultural problem, one that is both tragic and deviant. When a subplot emerges like the Cassie Bernall story, the massacre is given a new, more hopeful definition. The legends of heroism overpower the atrocity as a whole, and society adopts an optimistic view of the world. This is the ultimate end which society hopes to rest, case closed on a good note. As time progresses, this definition becomes even more rigid, more a part of the individual, and more impervious to attack. At a certain point, there is no turning back. Cultural definitions are the tattoo that wants to stay. It is possible to remove them, however, not without leaving a scar. The powerful constructs created by these devious processes of attributing uplifting cultural meaning to the darkest of events are those which shall rarely fall.

Brief Bibliography
1- Salon News Article
Inside the Columbine High Investigation. Sep. 23, 1999
2- Christianity Today
Cassie Said Yes, They Said No. Nov. 1, 1999.
3- Salon News Article
Who said "Yes"? Sep. 30, 1999
4- CNN News Article
Report: 12 killed at Columbine in first 16 minutes. May 16, 2000
5- CNN News Article
Bodies remain inside school as police check for bombs. Apr. 21, 1999

1 comment:

ShamRockNRoll said...

Rachel Maddow talked a bit about this last night. Pretty interesting.