The crucifixion of a sports journalist doing his job

One of the earliest pieces of advice I got in the journalism business is this: “Doing what’s right is not always going to be what’s popular.”

It’s an adage that could apply to any walk of life, of course, but it seems to especially apply to journalism. If your pledge is to “tell the truth and nothing but,” there are going to be times when you’re going to catch so much flack for honoring your journalistic creed that you feel like finding a hole to crawl into for about a week.

Knoxville sports prognosticator Jimmy Hyams probably feels like heading underground today, after being raked across the coals of Twitter by a head-hunting mass of Vols fans angry about his report on injured Tennessee player Todd Kelly Jr.

Kelly was treated at a hospital for apparently minor injuries after falling more than 30 feet after an altercation with his girlfriend. According to multiple sources, including the Knoxville News Sentinel, the girlfriend told police that Kelly threatened to kill himself. Law enforcement officers who arrived on scene were responding to a report of a suicide attempt.

It isn’t as if the suicide attempt was just conjecture that Hyams pulled out of thin air. He was doing his job, as a journalist, to tell the story.

But don’t bother telling Vol Twitter that. The condemnation was swift and harsh. More than one tweet encouraged Hyams to jump from the Henley Street Bridge. Others called for him to be fired. Still others called for sponsors to boycott the Sports Animal, Hyams’ employer. “Journalists” from competing outlets piled on. It wasn’t pretty.

Most of those ostracizing Hyams claimed that he acted unprofessionally and without integrity, adding that “nothing good” comes from publicizing a suicide attempt.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all, suicide is a taboo subject in America. There is a lot of embarrassment associated with suicide. And most of us — journalists included, sometimes — tend to just not talk about it, because that’s the easy way out.

I’ll admit that, as a newspaper editor, if someone dies by suicide, it isn’t going to warrant a news story — so long as it wasn’t a murder-suicide and the victim was an ordinary citizen.

However, in situations where the victim is a public figure, things change.

And that’s the first part that must be understood. Athletes, even at the college level, are public figures. This is especially true at big-time college football programs, like Tennessee, where huge fan bases occupy significant spaces on social media and analyze every single detail involving the program and its players. Whether it’s fair or unfair, issues that might not be newsworthy if they involved you or I are absolutely newsworthy if they involve a college football player.

To understand the newsworthiness of the Kelly story, check out the first page of a thread dedicated to Kelly’s injury on VolNation, the internet’s largest fan message board devoted to Tennessee football. On the first page of the thread, a user says, “Would love a update when available.” Another says, “Something is weird about this.” Still another says, “I hope we get some solid info soon on what happened and how he’s really doing.” Then there are others speculating about the nature of the incident — was it a car wreck? A fight?

If you think the situation involving Kelly wasn’t newsworthy, you don’t understand the thought process of college football fans.

To gloss over the nature of what happened to Kelly is to actually begin weaving a tangled web that will not end well when the truth actually does come out. And, because there was a police report, the truth was always going to come out, regardless of whether Hyams’ story was published.

Think back to September, when Tennessee defensive lineman Shy Tuttle was injured. Butch Jones, in an effort to hide what truly happened (Tuttle was injured amid a fight with a  teammate), told reporters that Tuttle — who fractured his orbital socket — fell and hit his head on a helmet and was not injured by a teammate. Jones was subjected to an unprecedented amount of media scorn, and rightfully so. He should’ve told the truth.

Jones, as the head coach in charge of the football team, was uncomfortable talking about Tuttle’s fight with a teammate. All of us would be uncomfortable talking about a player’s apparent suicide attempt. I can guarantee you that I would’ve lost sleep if I had been in Hyams’ shoes and had been faced with the responsibility of filing that report. But I hope I would’ve handled it the same way Hyams handled it. Because he did the right thing — the professional thing — even though it wasn’t the popular thing.

What if the Kelly incident had been swept under a rug, and the nature of his injury hadn’t been discussed. What happens, then, when Hyams’ readers ask him about the injury? Does he pretend that it didn’t happen? Journalists like Hyams have only one thing going for them, and that’s their credibility. They only have credibility if their readers trust them. And readers wouldn’t trust Hyams if he had taken the Butch Jones approach to answering the question.

Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. But in Hyams’ business, the truth is all you’ve got.

Amid claims that Hyams is heartless and uncaring because he reported what he reported, all should be reminded that news reporting cannot concern itself with emotions. It can only concern itself with facts and truth. It’s perfectly okay for the news to invoke an emotional response; that’s to be expected. It’s certainly not okay for the news to be influenced by an emotional response.

Amid claims that Hyams acted without integrity, let’s pose this question: When it comes to integrity, would you rather be the journalist who reported the gritty details of the police report without flinching, or would you rather be the journalist who reported as fact that Kelly “slipped and fell,” without mention of the police report and the girlfriend’s statement? One of those writers is acting with journalistic integrity, and it certainly isn’t the latter.

This is the dilemma of journalism, and it’s eventually felt by every journalist worth his salt. I’ve experienced sleepless nights because I’ve had to report on stories that placed friends of mine in an embarrassing light. It’s not fun. But if you are going to operate by the journalistic creed that you should value, it must be done, the consequences be damned. Sweeping a potential story under the proverbial rug is the easy way out, and it definitely feels better in the short term. But in the long term it’s a practice that leaves you without credibility. And a journalist without credibility isn’t worth spit.

If you’re a real journalist, you’ll do what’s right, even when what’s right isn’t what’s popular. Jimmy Hyams did that today.

Finally, a note about suicide in general: It’s such a tough subject to broach in the news industry because of the embarrassment that it inflicts on the subjects who are directly involved. But that embarrassment only exists because of the stigma that is placed on suicide by society. There is a strong argument to be made that we can only slow the ever-growing rate of suicides (more Tennesseans committed suicide last year than in any year on record) by raising awareness — which means destroying that stigma.

My first time covering suicide (besides a few of murder-suicide cases, which I had dealt with over the years) was actually relatively recently. And it forever changed my thought process on dealing with this topic as a journalist.

A young teenage boy in our community committed suicide by shooting himself. In keeping with our policy, there was no news story. Our paper published the teen’s obituary, but there was no mention of suicide, of course.

Then one day the boy’s mother showed up in my office. To say I was uncomfortable would have been an understatement.

Through tears, she told me she actually wanted a story written about her son — about how loving and caring he was, about how he chose to end his own life . . . and about how she completely missed the warning signs. By sharing her family’s tragic story, she hoped, she could help other parents prevent their children who might be contemplating suicide.

As she talked, she spoke of the stigma attached to suicide, and the need to remove it. Then she pulled out an obituary, from a northern newspaper whose name I’ve forgotten, where the family actually chose to wrote in the obituary that their daughter had taken her own life. If that family had the courage to confront the uncomfortable truth, she said, she should too.

What resulted was one of the most uncomfortable stories I’ve ever written. But I had little choice. If that mother had the courage to confront her family’s darkest moment with details that our society would prefer remain untold, how could I not serve as the mouthpiece to help her tell that story?

It was in writing that story that I realized a truth that a growing number of Americans are espousing: sweeping details of suicide under the rug are only contributing to the stigma our society attaches to suicide. And in the long run, that stigma is costing lives.

You can be honest about suicide — and suicide attempts — and still be empathetic. You can confront the reality of situations like Todd Kelly Jr.’s and still hope that he bounces back stronger than ever. In fact, I dare say that now most fans know what Kelly is going through, they’re rooting for him harder than ever, hoping he’ll make it onto the field healthy for a fantastic 2018 senior season.

Journalism doesn’t always afford its practitioners the luxury of empathy. But sometimes you can be brutally honest and still report with dignity. Which is probably why Hyams’ report began, “Sometimes, unfortunate things happen to good people…”

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