Twenty years have passed since the Columbine high school massacre, which was, to many people, the beginning of school shootings as we know them. In those years, life has changed: Mass shootings happen again and again, schoolchildren participate in lockdowns instead of fire drills, and many reflect on a time when the world watched as frightened teens fled the school’s campus, a boy fell from a window, and two young men took 13 lives with them on their suicidal quest.
The Associated Press was uniquely positioned to cover the two decades since the massacre, with journalists who were there, those who cover the Colorado community every day, and experts in polling, education and guns. Stories by Denver reporter Kathleen Foody and videojournalist Peter Banda led a deep all-formats package that told not just of the carnage but of those who survived it, their struggle, and the future.
But all the planning couldn't prepare anyone for this spot development: Early in the week, Sol Pais, a young Florida woman, prompted panic over a possible attack at Columbine, later taking her own life near the Colorado school. Reporters in Colorado and Florida jumped in to cover the news, putting AP ahead. No news outlet had any substantial interview with anyone who knew Pais, nor images of her beyond two handout photos. Miami reporter Kelli Kennedy used Instagram to track down a good friend of Pais who not only filled in personal details about her in an exclusive interview, but cast doubt on the official narrative that Pais was a risk to the community. In addition, Kennedy obtained two images of Pais: a selfie with her friend, and dining at a restaurant.
The overarching theme of the spot and enterprise coverage focused on the short and long-term mental health issues from school shootings. The result was a unique, meaningful package that included:
– An all-formats story led by Denver reporter Kathleen Foody catching up with those who survived Columbine and now have their own children in school. AP had photos of the girl in 1999 in a wheelchair after being injured in the attack, and rich video and photos today telling of how she prays for safety for her children each day before dropping them off for school.
– An all-formats story by Denver videojournalist Peter Banda about how SWAT teams who see the aftermath of the slaughter of children struggle to find mental health support, with the shocking revelation that almost the entire team that responded to Columbine is no longer on the job.
– A look at the mental health of survivors and how a school shooting haunts them for years to come.
– A poll showing that parents have little confidence in the ability of schools to stop a gunman, but most don't blame schools for shootings.
Play was impressive, with hundreds of downloads and social engagement on the stories, interest heightened by the manhunt for 18-year-old Sol Pais. The stories, both spot and enterprise, were used on hundreds of websites and ran on the front pages of newspapers in Colorado and beyond. The video was among the top-used AP videos that week.
Dozens of journalists across the AP made these stories happen, in Denver and throughout the U.S.
For their work spearheading the package, and breaking news, Foody, Banda and Kennedy win this week’s Best of the States.