Today’s print edition of the Sentinel featured a photograph of a young woman jumping off the cliff into the ocean at Lighthouse Point. The photo ran with a story about our annual and glorious late summer warm weather.
I heard from several readers today about our use of the photo. Their point was that by our featuring the dive in such a prominent position, the Sentinel was encouraging unsafe, even illegal, behavior.
One reader cited the Santa Cruz city ordinance, which states that it’s unlawful to jump into the water from a cliff or bridge. He also noted that his son had been severely injured falling from a cliff into the ocean.
Another said that by running the photo we showed “poor judgment” and were condoning jumping off the cliff, when indeed, a misstep or a mistimed jump could result in serious injury or even death.
I’m not surprised by the reactions. In fact, I discussed our use of the image prior to publication with both our photographer and local news editor. Together we decided to run it, for a number of reasons. One stood out to me — that young people frequently jump into that ocean from that spot. Surfers, for example, use the cliff to get into the lineup every time the surf is good at Steamer Lane.
But there’s another issue here, as well. While we are sensitive to matters such as keeping our kids safe and not provoking illegal activities, the Sentinel is not an arm of the local police or health department. Nor should any reputable news organization consider itself, or act like it is, part of government or officialdom in any capacity. Our mission is to provide a snapshot of life as it is being lived in our community. Our efficacy at upholding our role as watchdog over government becomes fatally compromised if we begin to make news decisions based only on what government permits.
Let me give another example. For years now, marijuana smokers have gathered by the thousands on the campus of UCSC on April 20 to celebrate their self proclaimed right to toke up in public. They are breaking the law. The university hates the negative image it portrays and law enforcement hardly appreciates coming off as powerless to stop the illegality. Parents are upset that the coverage might encourage their children to start using drugs. Should we cover, and photograph, this news event in spite of this? Yes, of course.
Do we want someone to get hurt jumping off Lighthouse Point? No, no, no. But our deciding to publish a photograph of something that is already and frequently happening is not going to cause someone to make a decision, one way or another – no more than running photos of football players in violent game collisions encourages one participant to deliberately hurt another player. Far better, I would argue, to hold a light up to reality than just hoping that if we keep what is really happening in the shadows, it somehow isn’t real.
Plus, it’s a great photo that helped tell the story about beautiful late summer days in Santa Cruz.