Beyond the Story: Things to know about Kate Fagan’s profile of Madison Holleran

Here are Images of Madison Holleran featured in the video accompaniment to espnw's "Split Image" profile.
Here are images of Madison Holleran featured in the video accompaniment to espnw’s “Split Image” profile.

Recently, espnW published an in-depth feature by writer Kate Fagan on former University of Pennsylvania track and field athlete Madison Holleran, who died by suicide, on the very filtered life she led on Instagram, then launched a social campaign under the hashtag #LifeUnfiltered to start a conversation around mental illness and the ways people filter their experiences — both online and off. espnW Editor-in-Chief Alison Overholt provided the backstory on the genesis of “Split Image” (which is also in ESPN The Magazine’s “Perfection Issue”) on Facebook and answered a few questions for Front Row.

How did the SportsCenter companion piece come about?
For our most impactful pieces, we always try to create full multimedia experiences — because you never know whether someone will relate most to the written word, to a video story, to a social quote post, or to an audio listening experience. In this case, Madison’s family was willing to sit with Kate [see sidebar below] for an on-camera conversation, as well as sharing with her for her written feature.

I’m incredibly grateful that our entire company embraced sharing this story on all our platforms, because it’s an absolutely vital conversation to have.
espnW editor-in-chief Alison Overholt

They had expressed how important it was to them to have a larger conversation around mental health and hoped their experiences could help someone else. Lindsay Rovegno, associate director in our digital video group and digital producer Steve Hodolitz worked with Kate to craft the video piece, and Lindsay shared it with all our partners when the package was ready for publication. Perhaps appropriately, the greatest impact of the video feature has been socially — it’s been viewed nearly 7 million times, and 5.5 million of those video starts have been on Twitter. The main story and the complementary piece with Madison’s friends have generated nearly 3 million hits.

What were your impressions after seeing how much conversation the story has generated?
I’m incredibly grateful that our entire company embraced sharing this story on all our platforms, because it’s an absolutely vital conversation to have. And though it is one that transcends sports and demographics, this story resonates so powerfully because it is being told through the prism of a young girl’s experience. We talked so much at Seventeen [Editor’s Note: Overholt was previously part of the editorial team at Seventeen] about “the pressure to be perfect,” because that forms the fabric of so many girls’ lives — which are then painstakingly examined by their peers under the microscope (and broadcast by the megaphone) of social media.

Having a conversation that not only asks, but empowers people to say, as Kate wrote, “It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to show people you’re not OK,” could be life-changing. I hope the #LifeUnfiltered conversation continues as long as possible.

Kate Fagan on reporting 'Split Image'

espnW reporter Kate Fagan took Madison Holleran’s story to heart. She talks about it in both the Around The Horn video segment above and in the answers she gave Front Row below.

Teamwork was important to completing this project, Fagan emphasizes: “The two most important people in this process were my editor Jay Lovinger and video producer Lindsay Rovegno.”

In reporting this story, Fagan also needed to examine a kinship she felt with Holleran and establish a trust with the Penn athlete’s family.

She explains: “This story resonated with me because I had played college sports and understood the anxiety Madison must have been feeling. I closely followed Madison’s story when it first happened, since I lived for three years in Philly and have a friend who currently runs for Penn. I struggled my freshman year in college, too. But it especially resonated with me because there was one thing I knew I would never understand: how depression affected her mind.

“I thought I could serve as a kind of bridge for the reader to see mental illness in a new way, to get them to see it as a real, understandable issue.

“I connected with the Hollerans through their ‘In Memory of Madison Holleran’ Facebook page. A couple weeks later, I drove to their home in Allendale, N.J., to meet them off-the-record.

“I just wanted to be in front of them, listen to them, and let them know we had the best intentions with this story. I recorded nothing, wrote down nothing. As I was leaving, Stacy said, ‘Madison loved sports, Jim, we need to keep that in mind.’ (They had been receiving all kinds of inquiries from women’s magazines, People, etc.)

“I returned to Allendale three times after that, all on-the-record, and hung out with the family, went out to dinner, etc.

“I don’t think there is any “right” way to handle this kind of story, because there is no ‘right’ way for a family to react to this kind of tragedy. I quickly realized that the most important thing I could do was be present and extremely sensitive to how the family seemed that day.

“And, of course, listen to them without judgment. I spent a lot of time in Philly, too. I spent an hour on top of the parking garage Madison jumped from, just to try to understand — if anyone can understand — what she might have felt like.”

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