After Las Vegas shooting, a Columbine expert offers heartfelt advice about the why of it all

If I made a list of books that all journalists should read, “Columbine” by Dave Cullen would be near the top. Cullen was at the Colorado high school on the day of the shooting, and he has covered the aftermath for more than 15 years. That experience has lent him a special type of insight on crimes of mass murder, the people who commit them, the folks who investigate them, and the journalists who cover it all.

In a recent essay for Poynter.org, I wrote about the “Journalism of Why” and how the search for motive was such a difficult task. I mentioned in that essay how reading Dave Cullen’s book had revealed to me how the earliest speculation about motive can turn out to be so wrong. In fact, everything I thought I knew about the two young Colorado killers turned out to be off-base. A myth had surrounded their actions, and it took investigators and journalists like Cullen years to debunk it.

Given the mystery of motive surrounding the recent Las Vegas shootings, I sent a message to Cullen with a list of 10 questions I thought relevant to the news of the day. I found the responses fascinating – both nuanced and practical. The key point, if I could extract one, is that the early mistaken theories about motivation tend to stick. Journalists need the virtue of patience, even when the clock of deadline is ticking like a metronome. In such stories, in Cullen’s words, “our blunders become immortal.”

Q: You covered Columbine from the day of the shooting. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given the young Dave Cullen as he went off to cover an event such as a mass shooting?

Cullen: Don’t get sucked into the pack. I read “The Boys on the Bus” years ago in college, and thought I understood the dangers. But when everyone else was reporting the killers were targeting jocks, I panicked, assumed I must be wrong, and followed the pack the morning after. I regret that.

Second, understand this will be traumatic for everyone, including me.

CullenDave Cullen with his corgi, Bobby Sneakers.

Q: I know from veteran reporters how they prepare to cover a hurricane. Tell me three things a reporter needs to do — or bring, or wear — when covering such a terrible event.

Cullen: I was tempted to say empathy three times, but I’ll go with empathy, skepticism and curiosity — in that order. You need those on any story, but they really leap out on this kind of assignment.

One of my pet peeves in journalism is bragging about “asking the tough questions.” It’s not about the questions. It’s about eliciting the best answers. There are so many better strategies to get the answers than chest thumping. Wily questions I could see, or insightful, probing — all kinds of ways in. But with survivors, the most vital element is empathy. It’s the only ethical way to do our job, but it has the added benefit of reaping the best rewards.

I met a brilliant shrink at a Neiman conference, who was a psychiatrist who ran a major rape counseling center in the Southwest, who was also a survivor of a Serbian concentration camp. Someone asked the most important thing we should know about survivors, and he said our first job is make them feel safe. If we don’t get that one, we’re not going to get s—. We’ll be that dickish reporter, and we’re also going to fail at our job. Nothing could ring more true in my work. Once a survivor trusts you, it’s amazing what secrets they will spill. (That’s true of sources in general, but especially here.) But here is a twist: People can smell a phony. In my experience, the only way you win that sort of spill-all trust is for it to be true. They may share the stuff they tell everyone, but they won’t open the locked doors unless you’re the real deal. You have to know with every fiber of your being that if it ever gets dicey, you’ll make a really tough call to protect them.

People sometimes ask if there was anything I left out of the book. We cut a shitload for space —to keep it from being an impossible doorstop of a read — but I pulled exactly one scene that would have served the reader. I think I can say at this point that there was a suicide attempt by a survivor, with a very powerful story around it, which would have helped readers understand the intensity of the struggle. The person gave me permission to use it — told me the whole thing— but was struggling near publication time and we made the decision that including it might be precarious for him/her. Three years earlier, I had made no particular promises to that person, but had conveyed with fierce conviction that if they trusted me with their secrets, I would protect them. I had to pull it.

Skepticism is also crucial for all the reasons you’re having this interview: Because the easy answers that are easy to jump to on the first bits of information often look obvious, but are usually wrong. So you have to withhold judgment, store those conclusions away as hypotheses to investigate and consider all the reasons they could be wrong.

I said curiosity because while skepticism is vital for steering you clear of myth-creation, it doesn’t get you to anything. People who commit these “senseless” crimes always have a reason, but not necessarily one that makes sense to us. It takes a lot of creative thinking to get to the bottom of these mysteries — but actually, it also takes a different kind of empathy. It’s easy, in a way, to put ourselves in the shoes of a victim; the scarier part is to try to think like a killer, and worse, to try to feel how he feels. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you want to go deep on these killers, that’s the job.

Q: Do you think of a journalist covering a mass shooting as a first responder?

Cullen: I cringed a little at that word, because I think of first responders as heroic for either risking their lives or saving lives. But that’s a narrow view, and by any reasonable definition, any profession that drops what they’re doing to plunge in as a part of their job, yes, that includes us. There are lots of groups that get overlooked, and we all have a role to play. I hadn’t realized groups like the Red Cross mobilize as well, and one of their first jobs is comfort to the first responders, including us.

Columbine happened on a warm spring day where I came home with a mild sunburn, and before that, around sunset, I first saw a pair of Red Cross volunteers walking through Clement Park. They had snacks and bottled water, handing them out to anyone hungry or thirsty. That was the first I noticed how ravenous and parched I was, and instinctively reached out for a bottle, and then recoiled in guilt. I realized they were for victims, and said I was sorry, I was a reporter. “Are you thirsty?” he asked. “Yes.” “Then it’s for you.” That still chokes me up, and reminds me of what he saw, but I didn’t. I’ve got a job to do, and a contribution to make. He was there to help all of us get through it, and help is good. It’s okay to admit when you need it.

Q: I learned from your book that everything I thought I knew about the shooters and their motivations at Columbine turned out to be wrong. You’ve covered the story for years. When did YOU feel you were getting to the real motivations?

Cullen: Once I started getting to the shrinks, that’s when I finally felt on the right track. Earlier, I had a misplaced moment that I was getting there in September 1999, so five months after the tragedy, when I published two big pieces for Salon, subtitled “Everything you know about the Littleton killings is wrong.” The spine of it was an in-depth interview with lead investigator Kate Battan, where she literally and repeatedly laughed (incredulously, not derisively) at the media narrative, which seemed like a completely different crime than her team was sorting through. All her peers concurred, and the leaked passages I obtained from Eric Harris’ journal sealed it. I’ll admit to feeling good about that for awhile, but it gradually dawned on me that all I’d done was help expose our mistakes. We could chuck the bogus narrative, but when people asked me “So why did they do it?” I had no good answer.

I dove back into investigating and researching earlier notorious crimes, determined to solve this massive puzzle, but something kept gnawing that I was on the wrong track. The pivotal moment came for me that fall, when I accepted my limitations. I was never going to solve this case. I was over-reaching. So many brilliant people, PhDs in criminology or psychiatry, and entire careers working these cases and reading after-action reports from countless more. My job was the messenger. Surely, on a case this big, some of the best minds in the country had been brought in. They had at some major FBI summit in Virginia, which had not been unreported but mentioned frequently by my sources. Getting to those people became my job.

I had been told countless times that this guy Agent Fuselier, heading up the investigation for the FBI and also a clinical psychologist, was the guy to get to, but the FBI was refusing comment, so he was out of bounds. But I kind of stumbled into one noted shrink who had been there, and he pointed me to another and one by one that fall, the truth started taking shape. And eventually, much later, I’d spent enough time with enough of those shrinks that Fuselier spoke to his boss and got permission to speak to me, all on the record. It took well over three years before I felt like I had a good handle on the story, and pitched it as a long magazine piece. The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair were the two that took a major interest, with a Times editor corresponding with me for a couple months grappling for the dreaded news peg. But they both decided the story was ultimately old news. But just before the fifth anniversary, I pitched it to Slate, they took it eagerly and ran it as “The Depressive and the Psychopath” and it was huge for them. That laid the groundwork for that half of the book (on the killers). Then I knew I could do this. Five years out.

Q: What are the most common mistakes journalists make when covering a story such as Columbine or Las Vegas?

Cullen: The worst mistake is leaping to conclusions too soon. It’s the fatal one, because facts about how and what get corrected. The afternoon Columbine happened, the sheriff announced that “up to 25” had been killed and that figure led every newscast and most every headline in the morning papers. It was wrong: it was 13 victims, plus the killers. It felt like a colossal mistake, journalists were mortified, but no one remembers it now. We always get random facts wrong, often big ones, but humans are pretty good at swapping them out, letting go of stray details. The why is different. Our memories are built on storylines, and the killer’s motivations are the foundation of that story. Everything follows from that. So no matter how many times we hear the why corrected, “changing” our memory actually means ripping out the foundation, razing the whole mental structure and building a new one. Unless you’re a reader really interested in the topic, ready to devote a huge amount of mental energy, that’s never going to happen. You might hear the correction six different times over 17 years, but it doesn’t take; the original narrative stands.

For journalists, that means get it right the first time on the why. Mistakes on the why will live forever. Our worst blunders are immortal.

Q: I have argued that the WHY is often the toughest question to answer for the reporter. Is that true, and, if so, what can we do about it?

Cullen: Definitely. Patience is key, coupled with a healthy skepticism, and the tenacity to keep digging. I got a call from a New York Times reporter six months after Sandy Hook, incredibly frustrated that so much was still unknown. I said that seemed pretty typical. The cops have to play it close to the vest for a while, because witness contamination is toxic to their investigation. That’s in everyone’s best interest initially, that they can get to the real truth for all of us. But I think they tend to get a little too comfortable with that freedom from our pesky voices, and hold onto stuff longer than necessary. So we have to be tenacious and keep the pressure on.

Q: Many reporters and investigators are trying to piece together the motivation of the Las Vegas shooter. Is it useful for reporters to have “theories” as they gather evidence, or should they just “follow the evidence?”

Cullen: For God’s sake, follow the evidence. But you also have to make sense of it, and the same data can drive a very different portrait if the killer is psychotic, psychopathic, depressive or whatever. So you have to explore hypotheses and consider their implications along the way. I’m more comfortable with “hypotheses” than theories, because just calling it that conveys to yourself how tentative it is. Just don’t pick a favorite too one early, because we tend to work toward it, even when we believe we’re open to other ideas.

Agent Fuselier had a PhD in psychology, a career in notorious crimes, and access to the huge mass of evidence including the killers’ journals we would not see for seven years. Once he reached a tentative hypothesis that Eric Harris might be a psychopath, he set about trying to disprove it for the next few months — because he had seen so many people fall prey to confirmation bias. And it was several months later before he was ready to make a tentative assessment of Dylan Klebold as depressive, because the evidence was murkier. Keep that in mind when we think we have a lot to go on weeks or months out, when the cops are still likely sitting on much of the key evidence.

Q: When I think of mass shooters, I find myself putting a label on each one. One is a paranoid schizophrenic, another is a white nationalist, another a convert to radical Islam, another is a psychopath/sociopath. Do these boxes help or hurt our eventual understanding of what happened?

Cullen: I think they are mostly useful, with some big exceptions and pitfalls. Globally, they help us make sense of these things, because no one can keep a hundred cases straight, and we have to organize them. And examining an individual case, the mental health categories provide great context: e.g., you will be baffled by a psychopath until you understand you’re dealing with a brain that probably operates differently than yours.

The danger comes when we see perps only as those labels. In particular, I see a big gap in U.S. journalism when it comes to politically motivated crimes. Once someone is labeled “radical Islam,” most of us tune out the rest — both as readers and reporters. Look at coverage of the paucity of clues to the Las Vegas shooter’s motives — little to talk about, but we talked about it nonstop. We have this burning (and laudable) desire to know why — except for terrorists; we don’t care what drives them. Once we toss a perp into the enemy camp (“the bad guys” or “evil doers”), we disregard their motives. All the self-aggrandizing shooters could just as easily be labeled “evil doer,” but we don’t write them off that way. We yearn to know what made them tick, what brought about this “evil.” I think that’s good, because that’s the only way we’ll understand what’s happening, and begin to stop it. I think we should be just as curious about the terrorists. We probably need to understand them even more.

Q: Reporters talk to various experts along the way: what questions lead to the kind of answers that contribute to public understanding?

Cullen: I think open-ended questions help signal early on that you’re there to listen and open to them steering much of the conversation to what you don’t know. But I find it’s more about the time you devote. For starters, when you’re on a tight deadline, you’ve got five essential questions you need answered and three killer quotes to fill, there’s not a lot of time to dig deep. For me, for longer pieces, the good stuff is all iterative: first conversation, they’re throwing lots of new ideas at me, and it’s like first day of a college course. It can be very exciting, but my head is spinning, and I don’t have the background to appreciate the nuances. Then you’ve got to do your reading, which raises new questions and ideas, back to the source, more books or articles, over and over.

When your best sources keep naming the same book — that’s pay dirt. For terrorism, that was consistently Mark Juergensmeyer’s “Terror in the Mind of God,” which made me infinitely smarter about terrorism. I could see how the Columbine killers adopted their tactics, in the service of fundamentally different drives. The book made conversations with experts far more fruitful, and sources work with me on a different level once they see I’ve done the reading, know the lingo and the classic cases. (They’re generally surprised! But invigorated to invest more time seeing that I have.) They threw out more cases, more readings and that went on and on for years.

Obviously, it’s a very different story working on a shorter piece where you’ve got a few hours days or weeks to spend. But when I’m covering alien territory, and I stumble into a great guide/source who can sort of recon the whole field for me, I’ve found that investing time can actually save it. I really saw that play out on a 4,000-word piece I was doing on a rape scandal at the Air Force Academy in 2003. A string of women had come forward, and that was already reported. The story, again, was why: Everyone was trying to unlock the mysteries of how the culture might be encouraging this behavior. I talked to prominent national thinkers on rape, and got good quotes and a bit more understanding, but nothing eye opening. Then I called the Colorado Springs domestic violence agency for the local angle. Frankly, I expected less than from the big names. The women there were a revelation, particularly the executive director, Cari Davis. She counseled the victims, but also empathized with the perps. She had spent a lot of time around soldiers and horny young men, and she liked them and identified with their frustrations — not to excusing the shit they pulled, but truly getting why. She knew hyper-masculine military culture from the inside. After a great phone call, I decided to drive down, to spend a Saturday afternoon with her and two of her best counselors, and dig in even more.

I had been beating my head against a wall for a week. After that, the story opened right up. I went back to sources to explore completely different terrain. Four hours saved me 10 to 20, and transformed the piece.

Q: What kind of personal emotional toll does covering such crimes take upon the reporter, and what can be done about it?

Cullen: It hits us all differently, but it’s going to hit you if you wade in deep. The single best thing you can do is be aware of what’s coming, recognize it, and do something about it. All that sounds obvious, but it body-slammed me in the first six months, and I just brushed it off, over and over.

It was Dr. Frank Ochberg’s presentation at a University of Colorado’s journalism school event that woke me up. He laid out how EMTs, ER doctors and nurses, cops and firemen and soldiers all rush into trauma, and all recognize it as a professional hazard. He explained how all those professions prioritize assessing and addressing it. Journalists are the one profession who rush in, yet pretend we are immune. (Partly because trauma is endemic to those professions, while most journalists are covering non-traumatic stories.) Dr. Ochberg laid out the basics of PTSD, and some of the warning signs were screaming out at me. I became an Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center For Journalism and Trauma which he created, and that was life-saving. For a while.

I fell into old habits and had another breakdown seven years in, but the second whammy seems to have taught me my lesson. I figured out my triggers, agreed to some limits, and usually stick to them. And right away when I fudge them, I’ll feel the danger signs, so then I really know to pull back. I know this feeling in my body as I start to circle downward. I’ve been to the place, twice, where momentum takes over and it’s too late to stop. Both times, I tumbled down into the dark place, it’s really hard to crawl back out of that hole. The second time, it took a month, and I was in pretty bad shape. So I’ve kept myself from getting near it since 2006. Finishing the book was the big way out for me. So much weight just lifted. One time afterward, suicidal thoughts started meandering in, so I got help right away and I’ve been fine since. But I know my limits.

My advice if you cover trauma: Get some help before you plunge in, or very quickly after. At least learn enough to recognize what to look for, when you need help and where to find it.