Last week, the CNN anchor Brianna Keilar found herself, for the second time in under a week, guiding viewers through the grim ritual of trying, and failing, to make sense of another mass shooting.
This time, it was 10 people dead at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo. Only a few days before, she had interviewed a survivor of the rampage at Atlanta-area massage parlors. In 2019, Ms. Keilar reported on the back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In 2018, she spoke with relatives of students killed in the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Broadcast journalists like Ms. Keilar, 40, have now spent the bulk of their reporting careers chronicling an unending, uniquely American horror show: the random gun massacre. She was CNN’s first journalist to arrive on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. And she was a college freshman in 1999, watching the network’s coverage of a catastrophe at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
All this was running through Ms. Keilar’s mind on Tuesday when, on-air, she paused after a correspondent’s report about Rikki Olds, the 25-year-old Boulder supermarket manager who was murdered. “I just wonder, can you count how many times you’ve covered a story like this?” she asked, her voice catching. “Have you lost count?”
many New York Times reporters, turn to as they travel to yet another afflicted town. Talk to those who knew the victims and the gunman; attend vigils and funerals; gather information from the police and the courts. Balance necessary reporting on the attack with the potential that too much attention could be seen as glorifying the attacker.
“I call it the checklist: the shock, the horror, the outrage,” Lester Holt, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” said in an interview. “It’s all so familiar, and everybody knows the role to play and the questions to answer and how these things play out. Because sadly, they are very predictable.”
Mr. Holt, who has reported on shootings in El Paso; Las Vegas; Newtown, Conn.; Orlando; Santa Fe, Texas; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Sutherland Springs, Texas — a lengthy but by no means exhaustive list — said he was considering this month’s violence in Colorado and Georgia in light of the country’s slow return to normal from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Shootings,” he said, “are part of what normalcy looks like in this country, sadly.”
Journalists who reported on Columbine may not have considered how routine the event they were covering would become. For his book on the shooting, “Columbine,” Dave Cullen analyzed media coverage and found that in the immediate aftermath of the Littleton attack, network news shows broadcast more than 40 segments, CNN and Fox News notched historically high ratings, and The Times mentioned Columbine on its front pages for nearly two straight weeks.
Mr. Cullen, in an interview, said he believed that reporters had absorbed useful lessons since that first episode. “In 1999, everything we heard, we took as gospel; conjecture turned to fact very quickly,” he said.
After Columbine, news organizations were quick to formalize what Mr. Cullen called “myths” about the shooting: that the killers were bullied Goth kids taking revenge on popular jocks. Much of that narrative came from faulty sourcing, and Mr. Cullen said he saw journalists now being more cautious about reaching premature conclusions about an assailant’s motivations. “We take things with a grain of salt,” he said. “There was no salt in 1999.”
Reporters have learned to spend more time focusing on victims, rather than perpetrators. It was a shift that played out vocally on social media, as readers on Twitter implored news organizations to focus more on the people who were killed in the Atlanta shootings, as well as the uptick in crimes against Asian-Americans, rather than the gunman’s supposed motive.
Mr. Cullen recalled a journalism conference in 2005 where he raised the notion that reporters should refrain from focusing too much on the gunman. “I practically got shouted off the stage,” he said. “Now, when I mention the names of a shooter from an older case on television, I will get angry tweets from people. The public expectation has changed.”
Journalists are usually expected to set their feelings aside as they gather disinterested facts about a tragic event. But it’s not always possible, and Mr. Holt said that it was important to “report these things as unusual, as not normal.”
“I think it’s OK to be a little pissed off,” Mr. Holt, of “NBC Nightly News,” said. “As a journalist, it’s not an editorial position to be upset or angry at mass murder, of people going about their day, shopping, getting cut down by a stranger. It’s OK to be upset about that.”
Gayle King, the “CBS This Morning” anchor, described an experience of feeling “like you’re kicked in the gut once again.”
What to Know About Gun Laws and Shootings in the U.S.
“We almost know how this story is going to go,” she said, invoking a phrase she attributed to Steve Hartman, a CBS colleague: “We’re going to mourn, we’re going to pray, we’re going to repeat.”
“My worry is that we are getting desensitized,” she added. “I don’t want us to get desensitized to it.”
And some reporters have to endure it, and report on it, repeatedly in their own communities.
Chris Vanderveen, 47, was there as a young reporter in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting. He was there to report on the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. And he had to lead a team of reporters during the Boulder shooting on Monday.
“When I was in journalism school I thought I’d be covering other things,” Mr. Vanderveen, the director of reporting at KUSA, Denver’s NBC affiliate, said in an interview.
He recalled painful lessons that he and his colleagues took from the Columbine shooting. Several reporters who covered that event developed close ties with people in the community, including parents of the victims. He said that helped them ask an important question: “What can we learn as journalists about not adding to the grief?”
After Aurora, KUSA invited family members of victims to the station. They were not there for an interview. “No story, no nothing,” he said. “Just to help us with our coverage.”
Mr. Vanderveen said that through those conversations, the station decided not to show the same mug shot of the gunman over and over again. And he said he continued to consider the role the news media played in potentially inspiring future killers. “I worry that there are people out there that for a variety of reasons may want recognition, and then they see this heavy emphasis on an individual who keeps getting his picture shown,” he said.
On Monday, Mr. Vanderveen was in a meeting about an investigative story when word came from a producer: There had been gunshots at a grocery store in Boulder. Grim experience quickly kicked in.
“Every journalist goes through tough stories,” he said. “We are not alone with it. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve had in Colorado, a number of these, that have given us, for lack of a better term, training in how to try to deal with these things. But it’s still going to be awful.”
His team of reporters may be among the few people in the news media covering the aftermath of the massacre, which he knows from experience will be a difficult assignment. After Columbine, national reporters stayed in the area for months. After Aurora, they stayed for a few weeks, he said. He suspects it will only be a matter of days before national news outlets leave Boulder.
“Maybe the country is tired of them,” he said. “I’m tired of them. If I never got to cover one of these damn things again, I’ll be fine.”
“But nothing changes,” he added. “That’s what drives me nuts. Nothing changes.”
The bleak reality of a list like this is that it leaves out so many more.
There have been dozens of mass shootings in the United States in just the past five years, according to the Violence Project, which maintains a database of attacks in which at least four people were killed.
And before that, many more were seared into memories: San Bernardino, Calif., and Charleston, S.C., in 2015; Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., in 2012; Virginia Tech in 2007, among them.
Each new attack is a reminder of all of the others that came before it, as the nation has been unable to curb an epidemic of gun violence that far outpaces other countries. These are just some of the horrors that have traumatized the nation.
March 22, 2021: A grocery store in Boulder, Colo.
A gunman inside a grocery store killed 10 people, including Eric Talley, the first police officer to arrive at the scene. The gunman was injured and taken into custody.
were killed at three spas, at least two of which had been frequented by the gunman. It was the country’s first mass shooting to command nationwide attention in a year and caused particular alarm among many Asian-Americans.
March 16, 2020: A gas station in Springfield, Mo.
A shooting spree across five miles left five people dead, including a police officer and the gunman. It ended with a car crash at a gas station and the gunman’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Aug. 31, 2019: Drive-by shootings in Midland and Odessa, Texas
a rampage across the two cities in which eight people, including the gunman, were killed, and 25 others were injured. The gunman hijacked a postal truck and opened fire on residents, motorists and shoppers before he was fatally shot by the police. Three officers and a toddler were among the injured.
Aug. 4, 2019: An entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio
Armed with an AR-15-style rifle and body armor, a gunman killed nine people and wounded 27 others in 32 seconds in a bustling entertainment district before he was fatally shot by a police officer. The gunman’s sister was among the first people he shot.
prowled the aisles of a Walmart in El Paso, a majority-Hispanic border city, killing 23 people and wounding about two dozen others. The back-to-back combination of the two attacks left the nation shaken.
July 28, 2019: A festival in Gilroy, Calif.
An annual garlic festival in an agricultural community south of San Jose turned deadly when a 19-year-old man opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. The gunman killed three people in the attack, including a 13-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, and wounded more than a dozen others.
May 31, 2019: An office in Virginia Beach, Va.
attacked the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, killing 12 people.
Nov. 7, 2018: A bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
A gunman entered the Borderline Bar & Grill, a country music bar, and shot a security guard at the entrance with a .45-caliber handgun before opening fire into the crowd, killing 12 people. The gunman was found dead at the scene after being confronted by officers who had stormed the bar.
killing 11 congregants and wounding six others. The gunman shot indiscriminately at worshipers for several minutes.
June 28, 2018: A newsroom in Annapolis, Md.
A man armed with a shotgun and smoke grenades assaulted the newsroom of a community newspaper chain in Annapolis, Md., killing five staff members, injuring two others. The gunman had previously sued journalists at the chain, the Capital Gazette, for defamation and had waged a social media campaign against them.
May 18, 2018: A high School in Santa Fe, Texas
Armed with a shotgun and a .38 revolver hidden under his coat, a 17-year-old student opened fire on his high school campus, Santa Fe High School, killing 10 people, many of them his fellow students, and wounding 10 more, the authorities said. Witnesses said that the gunman first entered an art classroom, said “Surprise!” and started shooting.
Feb. 14, 2018: A high School in Parkland, Fla.
a wave of nationwide, student-led protests calling on lawmakers to tighten gun laws.
Nov. 5, 2017: A church in Sutherland Springs, Texas
A gunman with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands stormed into a Sunday church service at a small Baptist church in rural Texas and sprayed bullets into its pews. He killed 26 people, including nine members of a single family, and left 20 people wounded, many of them severely. The gunman later shot himself.
Oct. 1, 2017: A concert in Las Vegas
deadliest mass shootings in American history, a gunman perched on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, smashed the windows of his suite with a hammer and shot at a crowd of 22,000 people at an outdoor country music festival. Fifty-eight people were killed and 887 sustained documented injuries, either from gunfire or while running to safety.
Jan. 6, 2017: An airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
As an airline passenger retrieved his checked luggage, he pulled a 9-millimeter handgun out of his suitcase and used it to kill five people and wound six others at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. When he ran out of ammunition, he lay on the floor, waiting to be arrested.
July 7, 2016: Downtown Dallas
A heavily armed sniper targeted police officers in downtown Dallas, leaving five of them dead. The gunman turned a demonstration against fatal police shootings of Black men in Minnesota and Louisiana from a peaceful march focused on violence committed by officers into a scene of chaos and bloodshed.
June 12, 2016: The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
killing 50 people and wounding 53 others. After a three-hour standoff following the initial assault, law enforcement officials raided the club and fatally shot the gunman.