A masterclass from ESPN

We’ll be teaching their coverage of Monday night’s story in journalism school for decades

By Brian Moritz

At one point Monday night, not long after Damar Hamlin’s horrific injury, Scott Van Pelt introduced a reporter who was giving a live update from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

I didn’t write down exactly what Van Pelt said, but by way of introduction, it was words to this effect: We deal with what we know, not what we want to be true, So what do we know now?

We are going to be teaching the first few hours of  ESPN’s coverage from Monday night for decades in journalism programs. From the moment Hamlin was injured until a little after 11 p.m. EST, when it was announced there would be no update from the hospital, ESPN put on a masterclass in reporting and covering an unthinkably tragic story. 

There was no speculation. No rumors. No reporting of what was being speculated on Twitter. Just honest conversations, straight reporting, real human emotion. 

The entire team handled it well. From Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth, to Suzy Kolber, Booger McFarland and Adam Schefter in the studio. When the broadcast first cut to the studio and we saw Kolber, McFarland and Schefter near tears in stunned silence, the enormity of the moment sunk in even more. Credit to Kolber and McFarland for both openly criticizing the NFL for taking so long to cancel the game. 

Then Van Pelt came on. He interviewed Lisa Salters, the on-field reporter, and … my God. Salters’ voice shook with emotion but she reported what she saw, what she heard, both on the field and in the tunnel.. She broke news, but she never lost the humanity of the moment. Her reporting helped fill in the gaps and give us all information responsibility, but with the emotion that belied the moment. 

Van Pelt and Ryan Clark … you’re seeing their videos all over the internet, with good reason. 

Good and proper journalism never loses the humanity of the people involved, and ESPN focused on that.

Kudos to Van Pelt for encouraging everyone to talk about how they are feeling. Joe Buck, in talking with Van Pelt, said that he “felt sick to my stomach, not that anyone cares about how I felt.” It was an understandable comment from Buck. The night’s not about him, it’s about Hamlin. But it also reflected the journalistic ideal to withdraw and distance yourself from the story. It’s not about me. I’m just here, telling you what happened. 

Van Pelt immediately, kindly, but firmly, pushed back on Buck’s comment. Not in a mean way, but in a supportive way. No, he was saying, your perspective matters. You’ve covered the NFL your entire life, you’ve seen serious injuries before, this one is different, so your reaction matters. It helps tell the story of the night. But more importantly, you’re a human being. You have a human reaction and human emotions, and you are allowed to have them, and they are valid.

Reporters aren’t robots, they’re people too. Their perspective matters, and it showed.

Dr. Brian Moritz is an associate professor in St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication where he serves as director, of the school’s online M.A. programs in sports journalism and digital journalism.

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Sports

1 reply

  1. I’ll bet the interactions you’ll have with your students on this topic are going to make significant, long-lasting impressions on them—and you, too, for that matter. One thought came to mind after I read the closing “reporters aren’t robots” line: How do the ESPN reporters’ reactions compare to the reactions of reporters from the scenes of mass shootings? And if there’s a difference in the way those reporters comport themselves, what accounts for it?


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