David Vann estimates he has almost 1,500 pages of documents regarding the February 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University.
But earlier this month, the writer said the opening section of his August 2008 Esquire magazine story profiling gunman Steven Kazmierczak included actions he was asked by his editor to “imagine” the shooter might have done in his room at the DeKalb Travelodge and in his vehicle before entering NIU’s Cole Hall the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2008, where he killed five and injured 21 others before killing himself.
Vann’s story described, among other things, the shooter sitting on his bed, picking up guns and looking at his tattoos.
“He could have been hanging from the chandelier. He could have been doing push-ups against the wall,” Vann said in a Jan. 22 interview via Skype. “... I don’t know, so that’s why I didn’t want to write the scene.”
Vann called his access to the law enforcement and mental health files and facts a “true scoop” and said he didn’t want anything in the article that would call into question whether or not it was true.
“But [my editor] wanted to have it as a better opening, and he felt it would be, just be clear to people we were imagining what Steve’s final moments were like there,” he said.
Tyler Cabot, the Esquire editor who worked with Vann, called the opening paragraphs “investigative reconstruction,” and Vann agreed that was an apt description.
The two differed on whether the approach was appropriate. Vann said that in his book, “Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter,” he wrote that he was imagining the scene.
“That section, along with the rest of the piece, was based on some of the most staggering reporting I’ve ever seen,” Cabot said in a Jan. 22 phone interview. “... It’s not like David and I decided to make this up. It is based on his reporting.”
David Boeyink, a recently retired Indiana University journalism professor whose research and teaching focused on journalism ethics, said Esquire has a different audience than a newspaper. But that doesn’t change where the truth lies.
“This imaginary reconstruction of a scene is moving beyond journalism into fiction writing,” Boeyink said. “Yes, it has links to what was actually there. There was evidence. The actual creation of that scene seems to me to be more about fiction and less about journalism.”
Cabot said the magazine stands behind the article. David Granger, editor-in-chief of Esquire, said journalism is investigative reconstruction, where a reporter gathers facts, quotes and impressions, then puts the facts together “in a way that both makes as much sense as possible of them and renders them in a compelling way,” Granger wrote in an email.