News Crews Arrive
Although other school homicides have received intense
media coverage, the response to the Columbine shootings dwarfed anything that
had come before. As President Clinton remarked, the event “pierced the heart
of a nation” and held the country in spellbound horror.
The public has an intense interest and the media a
responsibility to report about an incident of this magnitude. Managing the media
presence and meeting the corresponding information demands required significant
county resources, however, and became an important part of the emergency
On April 20, news crews were in nearby Boulder,
Colorado, anticipating developments in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder
investigation. As word of the Columbine shootings spread, the media immediately
shifted from Boulder to south Jefferson County. Somewhere between 400 and 500
reporters were on scene at the height of the media coverage. With them came 75
to 90 satellite trucks and up to 60 television cameras. At least 20 of the
television crews arrived from other countries.
The reporters on scene placed only a fraction of the
media calls the county received. Given the scale of the media interest, the
county called on many agencies and organizations to help with the public
information effort. All told, more than 35 employees from the county and
elsewhere assisted with this aspect of the emergency response.
The main spokesman for the tragedy was Sheriff’s
Deputy Steve Davis, who had been the public information officer (PIO) for the
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office for slightly more than a year. Davis called
into Dispatch at 11:32 a.m. and arrived on scene shortly thereafter, yet two or
three local news crews had already beaten him there.
Operating from the incident command bus, Davis worked
with public information officers from the various first-responder agencies. He
filled the key role of spokesman during the following days, while the other PIOs
helped him track hundreds of calls and pages from local, national and
international reporters. During the opening hours of the crisis, Davis dictated
a press release to a West Metro Fire & Rescue PIO, who sent the bulletin
from her office. Meanwhile, two other fire department PIOs helped Davis set up a
staging area where the media could get information and pictures without
interfering with the response efforts.
At 1:30 p.m., Davis gave his first press conference.
He held subsequent briefings each hour for the first two days after the
incident. Those hourly news
conferences, which were held at the Clement Park staging area, allowed reporters
to confirm information and hear about new developments in the investigation.
Between the hourly briefings, Davis obtained updates
from the command post, organized new information and checked to see what
questions reporters wanted answered. The other PIOs were working in shifts as
his assistants, and they scheduled his interviews, answered routine media
questions, gathered lists of new questions and acted as a buffer between Davis
and the media.
Without their assistance, Davis would have been
quickly overwhelmed by the demands on his time. The Columbine story was covered
around the clock, and the demand for new information was constant. In the first
two days alone, Davis did 134 on-camera interviews in addition to his hourly
briefings. Sheriff John P. Stone and other law-enforcement officials were
equally sought after by the media.
After several 20-hour days, Davis received help from
Sgt. Jim Parr, who had filled the Sheriff’s PIO slot before Davis. As the
crisis wore on, Parr served as the back-up, on-camera spokesman. Davis started
work at 4 a.m., and then Parr came in at noon. The two worked together for
several hours to insure they were dispensing consistent, accurate information,
and then Davis would go back to his office for a few hours and then home to
sleep. Meanwhile, Parr took over the reigns as spokesman for the late afternoon
Columbine Public Library
While Davis and the emergency public information
officers dealt with reporters on site, other media outlets began phoning the
dispatch center. The calls came within minutes of the first 911 reports, and
dispatchers were desperately looking for people to handle the media so they
could focus on the unfolding crisis at the school.
By noon, K. Ann Grider of the county’s Public
Information Department arrived at the dispatch center with County Administrator
Ron Holliday and Emergency Management Coordinator Judy Peratt. The three took
over the PIO function there and corroborated what little information they could
during the opening hours.
The high media interest was immediately evident. By
11:33 a.m., local media had contacted dispatch asking for information about the
shootings; by 11:42 a.m., the first national news organization had called. Soon
news helicopters were flying over the school, and other media
figures—including Jay Leno and Larry King—were calling to request interviews
with responding officers and Sheriff Stone. By midnight, 339 media calls had
come into dispatch from more than 60 countries.
A meeting was held at the dispatch center shortly
before midnight to plan the next step in coordinating the media response. At the
meeting were public information officers from the school district and the
county, representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, the county administrator,
the county emergency management coordinator and two of the county commissioners.
Also in attendance was the co-director of the Colorado-Oklahoma Resource
Council, who had coordinated the media response during the Oklahoma City bombing
trials that were held in Denver the previous year.
Everyone agreed that a coordinated response by the
primary agencies involved—the Sheriff’s Office, the county, the District
Attorney’s Office and the school district—could happen more easily if all
parties shared a communications center. By working out of the same building, the
agencies could share resources and check facts to keep misinformation to a
minimum. The dispatch center, which had limited space, was obviously not an
appropriate headquarters for a long-term media response.
Instead, the group chose the Columbine Public
Library, which is located near the school just across Clement Park. The library
was part of the county infrastructure, and it was reasonably equipped to handle
an influx of media and staff.
Once the facility had been selected, Holliday placed
a call to Library Director William Knott and asked if the library could be used
as a media center. Knott and the Jeffco Public Library Board promised their full
support and made employees available to assist.
By 1:30 a.m. on April 21, library, county and
sheriff’s personnel moved in to set up computers, faxes, copiers, printers and
televisions and establish a phone bank and Internet service. By 6 a.m. on
Wednesday, the county had a fully functioning crisis communications center, and
the phones began ringing. The county and Sheriff’s Office staffed the center
immediately, and the school district moved its public information officers and
volunteers in the following Monday.
Over the next 2-1/2 weeks, thousands of
reporters would call the communications center for assistance. Davis and his
team of on-site PIOs continued to function as the primary information source,
but sheriff's deputies and PIOs at the library provided what background
information they could and helped connect reporters with appropriate agencies
In addition, the library served as a daily meeting
place where all PIOs would gather to coordinate information given out on site
and over the media line. The facility also offered space for PIOs to research
and prepare written materials as needed.
Several days into the crisis, the media number was
broadcast to the public, and the phone bank was inundated with inquiries about
where people could send condolence cards or go to donate money, gifts and
services. The calls poured in from citizens around the world until the
communications center was finally closed more than two weeks later.
In addition, the park had hard-surface parking lots
that could support satellite trucks. By early Wednesday morning, more than 60
trucks and auxiliary vehicles were on site, along with generators, portable
lights, phone and fiber-optic hookups, tents, portable stages, food wagons,
portable heaters and miles of cable strung throughout the park.
Since the media had already erected their equipment,
it was pointless to move them. From that point on, Clement Park became the
center of live coverage of the Columbine response and the location for all news
briefings. Within hours, the park was transformed into a media city.
Although the county owns Clement Park, Foothills Park
& Recreation District manages it. As the hours wore on, more and more media
arrived on scene. They began spreading from the parking areas onto the grassy
turf, trying to gain the best view of the school.
The damage to the park was compounded as the weather
worsened. Within 24 hours, an ongoing battle with rain and snow began. The three
weeks following the shootings were the wettest on record since 1900.
Accommodations were made for the media, many of whom weren’t prepared for
winter weather in April. Canopies and tents were erected for the first few days
of briefings to protect both the spokespeople and the media from the freezing
The media did not fully vacate their encampment for more than three weeks, and, during that time, district staff provided utility hookups, sanitary facilities, snow removal, trash collection and crowd management assistance.
From the earliest moments, the media became part of
the crisis response. At a local level, the media were invaluable in helping to
get information out to the community. Newspapers and television and radio
stations dispersed the news, but they also announced phone numbers for hotlines
and counseling services, phones numbers and addresses for donation centers and
volunteer programs, and information about events, memorials and school-related
issues. They even gave mental health tips to the Columbine and wider community
as people dealt with their grief.
Davis provided as much detail as possible in his news
conferences, but the facts remained sketchy during the opening hours of the
crisis. Meanwhile, the media interviewed escaping students and teachers,
contacted Columbine-area residents and searched the Internet for information
about the suspects and the Trench Coat Mafia, an informal group the suspects had
reportedly joined. On the suspects'
web site, reporters discovered excerpts from Harris' journal, which the
Sheriff's Office did not release as it was evidence in an ongoing investigation.
The media's proximity to the SWAT staging area also
caused confusion. More than 1,000 law-enforcement and fire/rescue personnel
responded to the scene. Many simply came on their own when they heard of the
shootings on the radio, and they reported to the command bus, which was near the
media staging area. Enough personnel were already in the school, so the extra
SWAT officers were asked to wait while those inside the school finished their
sweeps. Those extra officers were pictured on television, which created the
erroneous perception that SWAT teams were making no effort to help students still in the
Other pieces of evidence the media wanted to have
were the cafeteria videotapes and 911 audiotapes. The videotapes were not made
public, but portions of a 911 tape were. Lt. Jeff Shrader and an investigator
from the Sheriff's Office spent an entire night putting together excerpts from a
recorded 911 call from the library, which was released the next day along with a
"I was asked why we didn't release the whole
tape," Shrader later said. "First, there was an ongoing investigation.
Also, we feel more compelled to be sensitive to the community than to satisfy
the curiosity of the world. I did not want to release the portion of the 911
tape in which kids were killed."
But reporters also assisted in the investigation when they would obtain information that they felt might be of value to the investigation and made a point to forward the information to the task force.
Davis stopped holding daily briefings after the
middle of the third week, but the media stayed. The first day back in his office
after nearly three weeks on scene at the high school, Davis still received 361
pages and nearly 50 e-mail and phone messages in one hour.
Columbine remained the nation’s top story until
Jesse Jackson went to Kosovo, John Elway announced his retirement from the
Denver Broncos, and a deadly tornado struck Oklahoma City.