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Kate Fagan: ESPN Writer. Should suicides of everyday people be covered?

by on October 7, 2015

On October 1st, ESPN sports writer Kate Fagan came to the UMass Journalism Hub to deliver a wonderful lecture.  About 80 students and professors came to listen to what she had to say.

Among many things, Fagan discussed her piece “Split Image.”  Split Image is about Madison Holleran, a star athlete in track and soccer in high school, who went on to run track at the ivy league University of Pennsylvania.  I grew up a few towns over from Madison.  We both played soccer and ran track and our teams played each other each season.  Madison was absolutely a standout athlete; one of the top in New Jersey.  Unfortunately, balancing ivy league schooling, running for one of the top programs in the country, and having a social life was tough for Holleran at UPenn.  According to Fagan’s story, when she went home for winter break her freshman year, her family realized she was depressed.  Her family and friends say she was always smiling and laughing, but something was different now.  Worried, they took her to a therapist, but sadly on January 17, 2014 in Philadelphia, Madison took her own life.  She was 19 years old.  The article and video are available here: http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/instagram-account-university-pennsylvania-runner-showed-only-part-story.

Personally, I thought Fagan did a tremendous job with the story.  At her lecture, she discussed what a sensitive topic it was.  She described how when she first reached out to the Hollerans via a Facebook memorial page, she wasn’t sure she would get a response.  However, she was pleased to hear the family was interested in talking to her.  Fagan explained how Madison’s mother said that if Madison were here to decide who would write a story about her, it would definitely be someone from ESPN.  Fagan explained how in interviewing family and friends, she had to ask the tough questions to get the full story, but also wanted to be sensitive to their loss.

Fagan wanted to get Madison’s story told to help college students across the country who may be in a similar position to Madison.  It is not easy to adjust to college and often schools do not offer enough services in helping students who are having a hard time with the adjustment.  “Freshman year of college can be like running an obstacle course with a blindfold,” Fagan writes.  This piece, while in memory of Madison, was also a way to raise awareness.  Holleran seemed happy.  Based on her instagram posts and texts to friends, you would not know what she was fighting.  Fagan emphasizes that what you see on social media is not always what is actually going on.  On her own instagram, Fagan’s bio reads: “These are the highlights; not the whole story.”

So why did Fagan get backlash for her story?  Lindsay Holmes and Jordan K. Turgeon of the Huffington Post released a story not long after Fagan’s, entitled “What ESPN Got Wrong When Reporting About Madison Holleran.”  In the article, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lindsay-holmes/madison-holleran-suicide-what-espn-got-wrong_b_7454882.html) Holmes and Turgeon say that while the story is beautifully written, Fagan is “irresponsible.”  They accuse Fagan of “potentially harming vulnerable individuals.”  They say this because Madison Holleran was a regular person.  “Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive.”  The Huffington Post writers say that while Madison was a standout athlete and popular student, and while her complications should most certainly be taken seriously, her suicide was not newsworthy.  By making it news, they say Fagan is opening a door for others who may be considering suicide to commit suicide because she is glamorizing it and these vulnerable people may think they will become more important by committing suicide.

ESPN did not write an article in response, but said that they approved the story because they had full permission from the Hollerans and wanted the story to open up conversation on mental health and stigma.  They did not want to glamorize her death, but rather wanted to encourage others to get help and open conversation.

Was Fagan being ethical by writing the story?  I think you could definitely make an argument both ways.  When I first read the story and watched the video I thought What a wonderful tribute to such an amazing girl.  I saw the story as a way to raise awareness.  Fagan says “Its OK to not be OK, and its OK to show people you’re not OK.”  I thought that the article did a good job of trying to raise awareness and open discussion.  Fagan emphasizes that she wants to help, and I think she did a great job at doing so.

When I read the Huffington Post article, I could see their point.  But, I stand behind Fagan.  If you are going to accuse Fagan of glamorizing Madison’s suicide, what about when journalists write about school shooters?  Journalists include shooters’ names, and most of the time that is exactly what the shooter was looking for.  Look at the recent Oregon school shooting.  The police chief asked that the media please not include the shooter’s name because that is glamorizing his name and giving him exactly the media attention he wanted.  Yet, the media did it anyway.  Google “Oregon School Shooting” and within seconds you will find the name Chris Harper Mercer, along with several images.  Where do you draw the line?  The way I see it, Fagan’s story was a tribute and was about bringing attention to an illness.

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One Comment
  1. I first saw this story on Twitter, and agree with you that Fagan did a great job writing a story on a sensitive subject like this one. I agree with you when discussing both points on whether or not Fagan was being ethical, but am definitely taking her side on this one. I especially agree with your point regarding the accusation that Fagan “glamorized” this unfortunate tragedy, and feel she was in the right writing this story, especially since she received consent from Madison’s family. I disagree with the Huffington Post that this story could potentially harm other vulnerable individuals, and instead agree that she was bringing light to a very unfortunate situation that is all too common in today’s society.

    I praise Fagan for attacking this story in the way she did, as there was no way it could have been easy for her to reach out to the family and asking the difficult questions in order to write a complete piece. When discussing how to approach certain instances and whether or not it’s appropriate to cover a specific event, I believe this story did deserve to receive the attention it did. Holler was an Ivy League athlete, which is one of the most prestigious honors I believe there is in college sports. Fagan brings to light a complicated situation that others besides Holleran face, and I have no issues with the way this story was written.

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