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Looking for bad news where theres none

On a recent Saturday afternoon, when Gaston Rural Fire District volunteers checked their frantically beeping and vibrating pagers, they saw an ominous message: “DROWNING.”

Still, as the volunteers raced to Hagg Lake, they all hoped that something, perhaps a miracle, would prevent this call from ending in tragedy. Perhaps even more than most people, firefighters love happy endings.

Sadly, there are others in our society who seem to be intent on finding a dark cloud around every silver lining, a villain to offset every hero. Some go so far as to create bad news where none exists, even picturing what their imaginary villains must surely look like.

A few frantic minutes after I saw the pager call of a drowning, I found myself on the beach with my fellow Gaston Fire volunteers as they tended to eight children on the shore of Hagg Lake. There was no drowning. I realized I had a chance to do something I love to do as the department's volunteer public information officer: I was going to report good news. No, not just good news, joyous news.

I was surrounded by relieved family members of eight children, all of whom were going to be just fine. But there was more: I also was surrounded by a quiet, humble family of heroes who had saved the eight children before our crews could make it to the lake. As I stood on the beach, I couldn't see anything negative to report about this incident. In fact, because of the modesty of the heroes and federal laws protecting their privacy, I couldn’t see much of anything to tell the reporters filling my voicemail with messages, other than that we had a happy ending.

Soon the rescuers reluctantly agreed to be interviewed by the media, but with one stipulation: They would not talk to any outlet that revealed the identity of the people they had just saved. They went on to endure stressful days of dealing with the media to keep the focus off of the family they had saved.

Of course every reporter asked about the rescued family, but most just hoped to get happy pictures of rescuers together with those they rescued. Most accepted my refusal with grace. But a few kept pestering me, even pressuring me, and some seemed to want more than happy pictures, suggesting that perhaps the family had something to hide. With each call from these reporters, my resolve to protect the privacy of our patients increased.

As news of the rescue spread, comments on internet discussion forums showed an outpouring of joy and admiration for the family of rescuers. After all, most people love happy endings. But sprinkled among the internet chatter were some ominous, and odd, responses, including suggestions that there is a media conspiracy to cover up the identities.

“Being suspicious of the media,” one message read, “I'm guessing the entire group were illegal aliens. Am I right?” Another post confidently asserted that reporters were hiding the fact that the rescued people were African-American, “because most blacks can't swim.”

As we raced to Hagg Lake that day, the volunteers of Gaston Fire were not speculating on the race, ethnicity, citizenship status or motives of those who needed help because none of that mattered at the time, and none of it matters now. Nor will any of that matter on any call. All that matters is that every call ends with the best possible outcome.

We didn’t need a miracle on that day at the lake; we just needed the heroic actions of the Gibson family. Because of them our ultimate wish was granted: A very happy ending.

Can’t we all just be happy to leave it at that?

Ken Bilderback is the volunteer public information officer of the Gaston Rural Fire Department, but his column represents his views, not necessarily the views of the Gaston Rural Fire District




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