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.
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 that aired on SportsCenter have generated nearly 3 million hits.
Kate is incredibly grateful that ESPN embraced sharing this story on all their 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.
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.”