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Cap Metro takes down social media post referencing 2013 Barton Springs drowning

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 by Kate McGee

In the photo, a curly haired woman stares into the camera wearing a red lifeguard bathing suit, holding a red rectangular flotation device over her shoulder.

“It can be really serious at Barton Springs,” reads the quote that accompanies the picture. “Two years ago, this guy was on drugs and he was swimming and then at some point he blacked out and died. But usually we prevent all of those things from happening. People think that we overreact sometimes. But, you know, your kids are drowning and you didn’t teach them how to swim. They don’t understand how close it can be from a kid going active and splashing around to how quickly they can go underwater and swallow water. I love my job because there needs to be someone that makes sure these kids see tomorrow.”

The photo and quote was posted on the Facebook page of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority — Austin’s public transit provider — as part of a campaign to share “Humans of New York“-inspired stories of Austin transit users.

This particular post and its removal have some people on social media questioning the post’s accuracy, along with its appropriateness.

The photo drew criticism for being “insensitive,” “inappropriate” and “a bizarre choice.” The quote appears to be referencing the drowning of a man at Barton Springs in 2013, the first drowning at the spring-fed pool since 1990. Timothy Guerra, 21, had been swimming with friends when he suddenly went underwater, but it was never reported why Guerra went under, or if he was on drugs. The death was ruled a drowning.

A representative with the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the city’s pools and lifeguard staff, said Capital Metro never called to ask permission to post the story or fact-check the quote.

The discussion on this now-deleted thread focused on the transit agency's post referring to a drowning incident at Barton Springs several years ago. Credit Facebook via Capital Metro

The discussion on this now-deleted thread focused on the transit agency’s post referring to a 2013 drowning incident at Barton Springs.
Credit Facebook via Capital Metro

But even before the reference to the drowning, the original post also caused confusion because people couldn’t figure out why Capital Metro was posting this photo and accompanying text about an issue unrelated to public transit.

“The photo series, the Austin Collective, features Capital Metro’s riders and their stories,” the transportation authority said via Twitter. “You can see more stories at http://theaustincollective.org.” Capital Metro has since pulled the photo off its Facebook and Twitter pages in response to the negative feedback.

The Austin Collective project is part of a larger marketing campaign to profile Austin residents who use public transit. According to Capital Metro representatives, photographers and filmmakers gather photos and interview Austin transit users. Then, they shorten the quotes to share on social media.

Capital Metro officials said they want to start a dialogue to better understand the people who use their services. It’s a project that has cost the government agency $80,000 so far.

Capital Metro Communications Manager Francine Pares said this is just the first phase of the campaign.

“It’s proven that people like stories,” Pares said. “They want to know about people like themselves.”

The first part of the campaign focused on telling the stories of people, and the second phase will help tie in Capital Metro services, she said.

“It’s been proven that social media content that are shared the most often are about stories. So we are just following a well-established strategy in engaging people and hoping they’re interested in sharing these stories,” Pares said.

“It’s kind of more of an art project, in a way,” said Amy Peck, the Capital Metro employee who conceptualized the project. “So that’s kind of how we approached it.”

This particular photo of the lifeguard was posted on the Austin Collective Tumblr page seven months ago, but Cara Welch with the Parks and Recreation Department said the department was unaware of the post until it was promoted on Facebook.

Peck and Pares insist that this was an anecdote voluntarily shared by a participant in the project.

“There was no expectation, I don’t think, that this was not easily identifiable or that we needed to fact-check,” said Pares. “This was something this person used as an example of why people need to be safe around the water. That’s all it was meant to be … something to illustrate the need for safety around the water.

“The intent was not to cause emotional distress by someone who may or may not recognize that this was a person they might know,” she continued. “The intent was meant to be illustrative of the need to be safe around water, which is an excellent message, by the way.”

To add another layer of confusion, the woman in the photo is also claiming on her Facebook page that she was misquoted.

The lifeguard featured in the post mentioned in her Facebook share that, while she is proud to have worked for the city, she believes she was misquoted by the agency.

The lifeguard featured in the post mentioned in her Facebook share that, while she is proud to have worked for the city, she believes she was misquoted by the agency.

The woman did not return requests for comment. Capital Metro released a transcript of highlights from the complete interview but not the fully recorded interview between the photographer and the lifeguard.

“This was a voluntary story that was given to us by a rider,” Pares said. “She wanted to tell this story. I can’t suppose any intent on that, other than when you read her entire transcript, it’s about you’re really teaching people about water safety. She wanted to be part of this.”

This story was published as part of a partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT News. Photo by SPENCER SELVIDGE/KUT

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