Opinion Opinion L.A.

Report the truth -- the whole truth -- on Robin Williams' death

Should journalists report the unsettling details of Robin Williams' death? In a word, yes

The details of Robin Williams' apparent suicide aren't pretty (not that anyone thought they would be): The beloved actor and comedian was reportedly found by his personal assistant suspended just off the ground by a belt wrapped around his neck. Cuts on his wrist suggest he may have attempted to kill himself one way before succeeding at asphyxiation.

You probably wouldn't know any of this if some enlightened journalists had their way. Those who missed the initial news conference where these details were first reported would have been kept in the dark, because journalists, some people say, don't have to continue reporting the disturbing facts after they've been delivered by the government officials obligated to do so.

Those thinkers are wrong. Journalists' job is to tell the whole story, and nothing less. I speak from experience.

Many years ago while working as a reporter in a small town, I received an obituary call from a local funeral director. The call was routine in every way but one: The subject of the obit was a young man in his teens. At the suggestion of my editor, I looked into the death and discovered the boy had hanged himself. I added that to the story.

A few hours before the final deadline, I received a phone call. It was the boy's mother. She had heard I was asking questions about her son. In a voice ragged with grief, she begged me not to print the fact that he had committed suicide. It was a call that would’ve moved a heart of stone.

I had no authority to change the story, so I handed the call to my editor, a woman as kind as she was wise and whose judgment I accepted without reservation. There was no doubt in my mind she would delete the offending sentences. Why not? Some kid kills himself in a small town; who needs to know?

I was shocked to find out I was mistaken. In the gentlest way possible, my editor explained to the grieving mother that the story had to run as it was.

My editor and I debated this decision until after midnight. My argument was that, in such a small story, our sacred duty to tell the whole truth might be harmlessly sacrificed to compassion. Her argument was that this boy's death was a small story, yes, but part of a bigger story, the story of the county we covered. It was our job -- and an important job -- to tell that story straight.

That my editor was wholly in the right became clear to me a few years later. It was then that county and state authorities discovered that, in fact, there had been a growing plague of teenage suicides in that area, starting right about that time. I can't say that the small obituary we ran directly contributed to that discovery. I only know we told our readers the whole truth about what turned out to be an important incident in their neighborhood. We did our job, in other words, and it was the right thing to do.

Robin Williams once made me laugh so hard I literally fell off the sofa in my TV room. It is deeply unpleasant to picture him dying the way he did.

The hive mind of the Twitterverse was outraged by the reporting of those details. Al Tompkins of the media watchdog group Poynter told USA Today that "journalists don't have the obligation to report that information over and over again in that level of detail."

Tompkins is wrong: The manner of Williams' death is public information. Journalists should report it as long as it remains of interest to the public.

It is not a journalist's job to protect us from the ugly facts. Neither is it his job to protect the sensitive from the painful truth or anyone, really, from anything.

In fact, speaking more broadly, it is not a journalist's job to make the world a better place, to ensure our right thinking, or to defend the virtuous politicians that sophisticates like himself voted for while excoriating the evildoers elected by those country rubes on the other side. It is not his job to do good or be kind or be wise. The idea that any of this is a journalist’s job is a fallacy that seems to have infected the trade in the 1970s, when idealistic highbrows began to replace the Janes and Joes who knew a good story when they heard one.

Because that's the journalist's job: the story. His only job: to tell the whole story straight.

In the greater scheme of things, Williams' suicide is a small story, but it is part of a bigger story: the story of our country and our world. That story unfolds only slowly, and no one knows what wisdom it will ultimately reveal. The best we can do is tell each chapter whole and true, without piety or fear or favor.

The best we can do is journalism.

Andrew Klavan's latest book for young adults is "MindWar."

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Robin Williams and a discussion on depression
    Robin Williams and a discussion on depression

    The circumstances that bring about a national conversation on mental health are almost never good. Most recently, the apparent suicide Tuesday of actor and comedian Robin Williams touched off a discussion among our readers on depression. In the past, mass shootings of children and theater-goers...

  • Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises
    Obama's fourth-quarter foreign policy surprises

    Six months ago, President Obama's foreign policy looked stymied. Negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians were at a dead end. Russia was gaining ground in eastern Ukraine. U.S. efforts to end the war in Syria were ineffective. A new extremist army, Islamic State, was marching into Iraq.

  • Ukraine should put Russia to the test
    Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage...

  • The great fear of the great outdoors
    The great fear of the great outdoors

    Americans find ourselves in a period — arguably, the first in our nation's history — when our unease about being in nature is coming to outweigh our desire for it. We have a growing intolerance for inconvenience, a feeling well captured by the suburban fifth-grader who memorably...

  • Animals and humans sometimes kill their young -- the question is why
    Animals and humans sometimes kill their young -- the question is why

    Among the endless stream of bad news in the media, every now and then something occurs that it is so horrendous that it stops us in our tracks. That has happened once again with Tuesday's massacre at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Among the victims: 132 children who died — many of them...

  • The snackification of everything
    The snackification of everything

    Symbols matter, which is why it's important to acknowledge that our truest national emblem isn't an eagle or a dollar sign or even a handgun, though each will have its proponents.

  • Some Sony lessons: What a difference a hack makes
    Some Sony lessons: What a difference a hack makes

    The Sony hack and the demise of "The Interview" have people howling about appeasement, corporate shenanigans and Kim Jong Un's private life. What will happen next? What should have happened already? And how will it ripple through Hollywood, Washington and even North Korea? Here are four...

  • Top 10 feminist fiascoes of 2014
    Top 10 feminist fiascoes of 2014

    Since a delicious feminist folly occurs nearly every day, I had a hard time picking the sweetest of the cherries off the cupcakes. But here goes, more or less in descending order of absurdity: