We lost a daredevil last week after he jumped off the Venice Beach pier at 2 am on the 4th of July, and the loss has left a huge hole in his family and friends' universe. While every loss of life is tragic, losing a daredevil is a special kind of loss for those who knew him or her. Because daredevils seem more full of life than the average joe, when their lives are cut short, it feels like a great force of passion and vivacity has been sucked from the world, and the world is a considerably duller and plainer place for it.
Unfortunately, when a daredevil dies, some people seem to lose sight of the fact that a precious human life has been lost and choose simply to lambast his carelessness or irresponsibility without regard for his grieving family. The LA Times ran the following headline for our daredevil's story on July 5th: "Drunk Man Jumps from Venice Pier, Search Underway." Well, yes, he was drunk, but referring to him as 'drunk man' seems to me to suggest that his death is somehow amusing or otherwise entertaining. For his family and friends, this loss is anything but humorous, and while they sat up for days waiting for news of their loved one from the Coast Guard, they had to read that story. The headline demonstrates the power of the nuances of language; 'intoxicated man' is not the same thing as 'drunk man,' and I believe that the journalist could have made a better choice in terms of wording.
The headline also brought to mind many memories of reading shocking headlines about unusual deaths -- "Man Eaten by Pet Iguana" or "Woman Dies of a Broken Heart." Of course, the news media has a responsibility to keep the public informed of unusual events, but there's certainly a line between information and literary rubbernecking. I think another reason that papers run these stories of unusual or sudden deaths is in an attempt to offer some sort of didactic lesson to their readership. While there are lessons to be taken from any accident, in the end, an accident is, by definition, something one can't always prevent. Jumping off the pier was not a good idea, but I can't help but feel that we have all taken unnecessary risks and done stupid things (particularly when drinking). The only difference between our mistakes and our daredevil's is that he had bad luck: the rip currents were strong, the night was dark, etc. His death is a reminder of the preciousness of our delicate human lives, and it is also a reminder of our own vulnerability. In the end, every 'drunk man' has a family who loves him and misses him and whose world is irrevocably changed by his death, and our words should reflect our understanding of the sensitivity of grieving loved ones' hearts and demonstrate our empathy for them, instead of compounding their suffering to sell a few extra papers or to get a laugh in the midst of their pain.