Mea culpa: I can’t be an off-duty journalist

Is a journalist ever off-duty? I tend to think not — and yesterday I feel like I neglected my duty. It’s bugging me.

It was Memorial Day, I decided to go for a long bike ride to see the beach at Alameda. I needed the exercise, and the weather was perfect. I was enjoying myself greatly — but as I was biking back along Crown Beach in Alameda, I saw police, firefighters, and onlookers gathered. I asked what was happening, and they told me that a man was stranded offshore. A firefighter pointed out into the water, and I could see a head bobbing above the waves, about 150 feet out.

“It’s shallow out there, he’s standing,” said the firefighter. And indeed, the man didn’t seem to be struggling. But he wasn’t waving or shouting for help, either.

More onlookers gathered, and I snapped some pictures. I couldn’t get a good photo of the man in the water, but I photographed the gathering crowd, and tweeted it both on @agahran and @oaklandlocal, a local news/community site where I’m a senior editor.

Rescue workers, locals, watch drowning man, Crown Beach, Alameda, CA

I heard locals talking, and asked them if they knew the man. “He was depressed, off his meds, lost his job,” said one neighbor. “He just walked out into the water with all his clothes on. He’s trying to kill himself.”

In that moment, I froze. I couldn’t be a journalist just then. It felt too personal.

Crowd gathers as man drowns, Crown Beach, Alameda, CA

You can't see him, but the drowning man was about here offshore, Crown Beach, Alameda.

About a year ago, a good friend from Boulder, who’d grown distant, took his own life. Max was a few years younger than me, a doting father, an artist, sociable and often grinning.

But a few years ago, his life fell apart, I’m not sure why. It happened when my own life was in major transition, and I was feeling the stress of that change. While I never considered suicide, I could relate to feeling overwhelmed and rootless.

I’ve been haunted by Max’s death — and really spooked by suicide ever since.

Back on the beach, a kiteboarder zipped out to the drowning man and circled him several times, coming back to report to emergency personnel on the beach. It seemed like it was taking a long time to mount a rescue so close to shore

So yesterday I rationalized: “This isn’t Oakland. I’m off duty. I don’t need to cover this. I don’t want to cover this. I’ve tweeted my pictures, that’s enough for now.”

So I left. I biked across to Bay Farm Island, where I saw an orange emergency helicopter fly in across the water, hover over the man’s location, then leave. And I continued my bike ride, and went home, trying to shake the spooked feeling.

Last night I got a call from the Bay Area ABC station, KGO7, asking for permission to use my photos in their story about the incident. I said yes, as long as their web story linked to Oakland Local. Here is the KGO story. (Getting them to add that link took some further prodding, but they did it — legacy news orgs often overlook/downplay local news startups, and I get tired of that.)

Reading and watching KGO’s story, I realized how I’d messed up yesterday. They got the story right: Why were so many emergency personnel there on the beach, just watching a man drown 150 feet away?

I was grappling with my own complex connection to suicide. When I considered what I’d cover, if I did cover it, I could only envision a typical story focused on the guy who was killing himself. I didn’t want to do that — I’d have felt like that would be gratuitously pimping out his misery. It was yet another reason to turn away.

But KGO got the story right, the story my own pictures told: Where was the rescue?

As it turned out, Alameda police and firefighters are not currently certified to mount a land-based water rescue. They had to cut back on that training due to budget problems. To attempt such a rescue without certification apparently meant the city could get sued. So they just stood there and watched.

Which is horrible. And I should have asked about that.

According to KGO:

The Alameda Fire Department says budget constraints are preventing it from recertifying its firefighters in land-based water rescues. Without it, the city would be open to liability.

“Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do,” Alameda Fire Div. Chief Ricci Zombeck said when asked by ABC7 if he would enter the water to save a drowning child.

Alameda firefighters could not even go into the water to get the body, so they waited until a woman in her 20s volunteered to bring the body back to the beach.

On duty, off duty.

I’d told myself this incident was out of my journalistic jurisdiction, and I was not on the clock for Oakland Local right then. All a rationalization because I was having an emotional response that made me feel helpless, depressed, out of place.

Meanwhile, those Alameda cops and firefighters were on duty — but said that status was precisely why they couldn’t act.

We all failed that day, And Ray Zack, 53, of Alameda, drowned while we stood by.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, my good friends Randy and Kit Cassingham told of a rescue that did happen. Everyone was on duty. But knowing Randy and Kit, if they were off duty, it wouldn’t have mattered. They would have rescued the teenager who fell off a cliff during a post-graduation party in a remote rural mountain area.

I’m not sure what to do with this. But I know now, really know, that a journalist can’t ever truly be off-duty. Certainly not for life-or-death events. I could not have save this Alameda stranger, any more than I could have saved my friend Max. But I should have asked more questions, and not given in to how I was feeling. I don’t blame the Alameda emergency responders for their inaction, but that situation had a dreadful wrongness about it.

I’m trying to figure out what to do with this. Suggestions are welcome, please comment below.

UPDATE: This sad event gave me an idea for the upcoming Code for Oakland event I’m helping to organize. What if emergency response agencies/dispatch could coordinate with qualified local volunteers in all kinds of emergencies? Like, say, people with Red Cross lifeguard certification? Stay tuned…

11 thoughts on Mea culpa: I can’t be an off-duty journalist

  1. Dennis, I will do that if the Alameda Sun will credit Oakland Local for the photo and do a live hyperlink back to OaklandLocal.com. Will e-mail you about that.

    – Amy Gahran

  2. We all deserve downtime, Amy. There’s the ideal world, and then there’s the real world. Example: you assumed I was “on duty” for the rescue I wrote about, but no: Kit and I are volunteers, and are “on call”. We’re on call 24x7x365, but obviously can’t possibly really be there 100% of the time; we go to town for groceries, go on business trips, or fall ill and have to stay in bed to get better. We can only do what we can do. Lament that we weren’t available when we could have helped, sure. But feel guilty that we couldn’t? No; not reasonable, and a recipe for making yourself an emotional wreck.

    We all have to make decisions every day about what to do, on the job and off. Did you have a DUTY to act? No. Did your not acting as a journalist in that moment cause the man’s death? …No — you didn’t even “contribute” to his situation or death. I think you’re reacting more to the outcome, especially thinking of Max, than your actions. And that, my dear, is what makes you a good journalist.

    The journalists’ job is to report, not participate. They don’t have to actually BE there to get a good story, as this very blog post proves. You DID do your job, by writing this story! Just as KGO7 did its job to highlight the tradeoffs of what happens when a town has to make a decision how to allocate the limited amount of money its citizens give them to spend on their behalf.

    You noted I’m a rescuer myself; true. But I have already made the decision that I will NOT go into the water on a rescue. I’m not trained for it, and I know that this lack of training is a MASSIVE risk of death — something like 35% of would-be water rescuers drown.

    (A long pause here — I went on an ambulance call!)

    So, forgive yourself. You DID act as a journalist: you wrote this. Later, you may write about the hard choices Alameda is having to make with its limited budget (and what choices has YOUR town made, that could lead to similar consequences?) You may find an entirely different angle. That’s what you DO. But don’t kick yourself for not getting every story. You can’t get them all, and I can’t go on all the rescue calls. You can only do what you can do.

    Meanwhile, re the story of the rescue you linked to: yeah, that was indeed an amazing experience to go through. Thanks for the link.

  3. Are you more upset that you rationalized that you didn’t do your job as a journalist, or that you saw a man die and you couldn’t do a thing about it…even write about it?

    If it’s the latter, know this: you didn’t kill this man. He killed himself. You didn’t contribute to his death by just snapping photos and leaving, either. And you have written about it, here. Even if you had covered the non-rescue attempt in more depth at the scene, you still wouldn’t have saved the man from suicide.

    Randy has good advice: “We can only do what we can do. Lament that we weren’t available when we could have helped, sure. But feel guilty that we couldn’t? No; not reasonable, and a recipe for making yourself an emotional wreck.” Be reasonable. You’re in a noble profession, not a perfect one.

  4. Amy – I appreciate that you have the courage to share your backstory to this story. I feel that I often struggle with second guessing my decisions and to hear you work through your feelings is familiar – the replay is a much longer process than the experience. I know you don’t write this blog for therapy, but it has helped me immensely to reaffirm that an agonizing situation is also an opportunity to review your values and make sure you still feel you are putting one foot in front of each other in the right direction. Thank you for being a wonderfully thoughtful person out in public

  5. The issues your story raised for me were about the public nature of this man’s death and whether we have a right, even a moral duty to interfere.

    The man chose a public place to do this which makes me wonder why this place? Why not at home? Did he hope to be saved? Or did he think in some way, “I’ll leave it up to fate whether someone rescues me or not.”

    And people stood around for a while watching and trying to decide what to do. Again, so strange and disturbing. While someone was dying in front of them.

    It makes me wonder if I see someone doing this, should I leave them alone and let them have a choice over their life? Is it my duty to save a life if I can?

    Lots of not so simple questions.

    Be interesting to find out what the laws say about this.

  6. Respectfully, a public mea culpa from a reporter is really not necessary, and frankly, misses the point of what just happened:

    A) a man died because of a budgetary policy decision.

    B) we – as of now – know nothing about the man who drowned, save that he’s only known for that tragic end.

    Again, respectfully, I suggest your time would be better spent writing a follow up and speaking to this man’s family and friends and helping to tell his story.

    Or, get officials to explain why in the hell such a policy was put in place that blocked firefighters and police from taking action.

  7. John, respectfully, there’s lots of followup happening on those fronts already, in terms of this particular case in Alameda. I fielded inquiries from about 10 news organizations yesterday, local and national. They’re on that one story better than I could ever do.

    Rather than add a voice to that booming chorus, I think the value I can add here is to work through Oakland Local to find out where other such gaps in the system, especially policy concerning public safety, might be forming here in Oakland — hopefully before too many people fall through them.

    Also, I’ll be writing more today about something I’m bringing up at the Code For Oakland event on Saturday that might help proactively address the issue of helping emergency responders find and cooperate with qualified local volunteers.

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