Covering Columbine

Kristen Go

Photo By David Robert

When I met Kristen Go in 1996 or so, she was the Reynolds School of Journalism’s rising star—an award-winning high school journalism student from Stockton, Calif., recruited to the University of Nevada, Reno. The J-school building was still pretty new, and Dean Jimmy Gentry’s vision was of a thriving college that attracted the best and brightest from across the nation. Go exemplified this ideal. We both graduated in 1998. A year after graduation, Go was working as a reporter on the night cops beat at the Denver Post. It wasn’t typical for her to be in the Post’s newsroom mornings. But on April 20, 1999, she was sitting at her desk finishing up a reporting project when calls started coming in about shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Go spent the day at an area hospital, as well as walking the streets of Littleton in search of sources to talk about the two teens who weren’t yet officially identified as the shooters—Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The extraordinary efforts of the Denver Post’s staff that day earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize. Go, 27, is now a reporter at the Arizona Republic, a Gannett-owned paper edited by former Reno Gazette-Journal editor Ward Bushee. Go spoke about her experiences covering Columbine to UNR journalism students Tuesday at her alma mater.

What were things like in the newsroom when the calls about Columbine came in?

I remember the [day] cop reporter taking the first call. At first, she said that it sounded like a possible prank at Columbine. Then another call came in about a bomb and a grenade—eight people were down. [Reporters and editors] got together and said, “What are we going to do? You go to Columbine. You go here. You go there.” I was sent to one of the trauma centers. None of us knew where Columbine was. We had to look at a map. I spent the bulk of the day at the hospital. Then I went back [to the newsroom] and was sent out to get information on the shooters. So I went to their neighborhood and started knocking on doors.

Were most people willing to talk to you?

They were. But by the time I made it there, so had every other media outfit. They weren’t sure who they had told what to. Also, things were kind of sketchy as to if [Klebold and Harris] were the shooters. Verified information was rare, so anything they said, I listened to.

What were you thinking during all of this?

I don’t think I was thinking. I knew I needed to work really hard to get as much information as possible about the people injured, about the shooters, about what caused this. I don’t think the magnitude of the event sunk in until later in the day when I was watching one of the first press conferences. They said they weren’t sure, but it was possible that as many as 20 people died. Up until then, I’d been in a vacuum. I was only one piece of the puzzle. I wasn’t watching TV or listening to the radio, just out getting information.

What did you take away from the experience?

I think it was that I was part of an amazing story. I was proud of how our newsroom came together in this difficult time. [On the newspaper’s staff were] people who lived in that community with kids who went to that school. The paper brought counselors in to talk. It was one of the most dramatic stories I’ve ever covered.

And the Pultizer Prize. Wow.

I try not to bring it up. It’s not something I drop into conversations.

How’s life at the Arizona Republic?

It’s going well. I cover City Hall, and I’m learning about convergence. I just started television training.

What’s up with convergence?

We have a multi-media team of two reporters responsible for looking through our [newspaper story] budgets every single day. They pitch stories to our sister [TV] station. The station decides, “We like this one,” and the reporter is responsible for reporting the story and producing it for television. She talks to the [newspaper] reporter and gets sources, does her own reporting, gets video, goes back to the station, types up her script, gets it approved and does any editing. Then she goes back to the newspaper, puts make-up on and does a live shot from the newsroom.

So you’re going to do this?

I don’t know. They want more people to have this flexibility to be on TV and report for the newspaper. Before, the attitude was, if you have a good story for TV, you’re going to be on TV. It didn’t matter if you stuttered or if you were camera shy. They realized that’s not the best way to do it.

What advice do you have for journalism students today?

They need to pay attention to convergence. But mostly what they need to focus on now in school is being able to write and report well. Those skills carry over into any area they decide to pursue.