On December 13th, 2013, 17-year-old Claire Davis was eating lunch with a friend when she was shot point-blank in the head by a fellow student at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colorado (Torres). For eight days following the shooting she remained on life support– her senior yearbook photo was plastered on all local and national news channels and her name dominated conversations.
I was 17 years old at the time as well– a junior at Boulder High School, which is about 30 miles away. The event was very traumatic for my family, especially for my father. He had worked with Claire’s father, and was close enough with the family to be asked to attend the funeral service. He told me couldn’t stop thinking that it could have easily been me in the hospital bed and him making the decision to remove me from life support.
For a couple weeks, everyone was wrapped up in the tragedy of this event. So much so, that most of the news about the killer’s own death (he committed suicide seconds after shooting Claire) slipped through the cracks. There was almost no immediate information about his motives or background, and no interviews with his parents. There is, on average, one school shooting per week in the United States, but this one was different (“School Shootings in America Since Sandy Hook.”). Obviously, Claire’s story was important to me personally, because never before had I related to the victim in that way. But that is exactly why the shooting of Claire Davis is monumentally important. Everyone I knew was talking about her, sympathizing with her and her family, imagining what she was feeling and wondering if she was in pain— absolutely nobody was talking about her killer, Karl Pierson. Pierson took his life that day along with Claire’s, but for what seems like the first time in history, nobody was talking about the shooter.
Here is a picture of Karl Pierson, because you probably haven’t seen one.
Jessica Hamblen, Ph.D., in collaboration with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, reports on the extensive media coverage surrounding the 1999 Oklahoma City Bombing, in which Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in what was the biggest bombing on United States soil until 9/11 (“Oklahoma City Bombing”). She believes that “as horrific as [tragic events] are to watch on television and read about in newspapers and magazines, many still find it nearly impossible to turn away” (Hamblen). In a survey performed on a large group of Oklahoman school children, two-thirds of them told her that “in the seven weeks after the bombing, “most” or “all” of their television viewing was bomb related” (Hamblen). Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are perhaps the most infamous school shooters, responsible for the death of one teacher and twelve students at Columbine High School in 1999. They were also avid followers of the news– the story of the Oklahoma City Bombers had captivated them, and they had every intention of causing more destruction, bigger explosions, and more death than Nichols and McVeigh (Cullen 32).Eric bragged in his journal about topping this feat, writing that he would be sure to include more than just one act (Cullen 32). While media coverage or traumatic events is important in order to notify families and relay information to the public, it also glorifies events like this and puts criminals in the spotlight. This can make egotistic people want to copy the event in the hopes of receiving similar notoriety.
The fact that Karl Pierson was not put in the spotlight is a huge development in the world of media. For once, the attention of the community and the country was being paid to the person who deserved it– the victim of a senseless act who would never get to live out the promising life that was ahead of her. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough– we are entirely responsible for what pay attention to, sensationalize, and ultimately what takes hold in our collective memory. This collective memory is strongly influenced by what the media chooses to present to us, but we are in charge.
In David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005, he explains to the graduates that their liberal arts education has done more than taught them “how to think”. Wallace begins with an example of three fish swimming around- one fish asks the others, “how’s the water boys?” and one of the other fish replies, “what the hell is water?” This little story, although comical, is really meant to explain that we are sometimes so one-track-minded that we don’t think about what is going on around us. He tells them that learning “how to think” really means “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” (Wallace). The people of Littleton and the members of the media covering the story actively chose to remember Claire instead of the shooter. Wallace believes that we are hardwired to see the negatives in a situation– a long line at the grocery store is what we focus on instead of the people around us, and in cases of school shooters the killer is sensationalized instead of the victim.
So, why should we choose to focus on the horrors of everyday life? Why do we choose to watch videos over and over again of animals going through conveyor lines to be processed in factory farms, instead of advertising the efforts by animal activists to try to generate more attention to that? Why do we watch mindless TV shows of zombie apocalypses like the Walking Dead, when we could be watching the news and learning about what is going on in the world? What we spend our time thinking about is a conscious decision. Who we choose to highlight on the news and in our social conversations is a conscious decision.
As soon as we start to handle more school shootings in the way that the people of Littleton did in Claire’s case, the fewer shootings we will have because the shooters won’t get that attention. The more we start talking about efforts to change factory farming instead of showing the horrors of their workings, the more they might start to change. We have incredible power over what happens, and it starts by realizing that we get to choose what we think about what is going on around us.
Cullen, David. Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009. Print.
Hamblen, Jessica. “The Effects of Media Coverage of Terrorist Attacks on Viewers.”Factsheet. National Center for PTSD, Web. 03 June 2015.
“Oklahoma City Bombing.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, Web. 03 June 2015.
“School Shootings in America Since Sandy Hook.” Everytown for Gun Safety. Web. 08 June 2015.
Torres, Zahira. “Claire Davis Dies from Injuries in Arapahoe High School Shooting.” Denver and the West. The Denver Post, 21 Dec. 2013. Web. 08 June 2015.
Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement Ceremony. Kenyon College. 2005. Address.