A month into her freshman year, at a school she picked off a map but felt in her heart was the right place to be, Dianna Russini, BA Communication ’05, sat in George Mason University’s Johnson Center Bistro and watched a giant projector show the horrors of September 11. Her father, in Tower One, would make it out safely, but Russini spent hour after hour watching the events unfold, watching NBC4 with anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler, hanging on their every word as they reported on the tragedy of that day.
The events confirmed what Russini had always thought: she needed to be on the news. “I never forgot the importance of [Vance and Gentzler] in that moment,” she says.
Russini, a walk-on soccer player who became a scholarship athlete and starter just a year later, also began interning with news organizations while at Mason. She worked as the in-arena host for the Washington Wizards and as a sideline reporter on the Colonial Athletic Association for Comcast SportsNet. And she got a little help practicing her news skills from her teammates.
“They’d let me interview them on the bus to games,” Russini says. “And they would write letters to stations, telling them that they should put me on the air.” Sometimes, there was even tough love. One teammate would have her stand in front of the mirror and tell her everything she needed to do better to become an on-air reporter. But it was part of a drive, a fierce ambition that made Russini successful.
After graduating with a concentration in journalism, Russini hopped around the country, a necessary part of being a television reporter. She covered crime in New York City before moving back to covering sports, her true passion, in Seattle. A year later, she was back on the East Coast where news and sports mixed as she covered the Sandy Hook shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and her most memorable on-air report: the Boston Bruins hockey game, the first sporting event held in the city since the bombing. “It was the moment the city began to heal,” she says about the game and its famous tearful, emotional crowd-sung national anthem.
Being a female sports reporter in the machismo-dominated world of professional sports is rarely easy.
Russini says, “You make a decision when you walk into a clubhouse about what type of reporter you want to be. There are dozens of successful avenues, but you have to work overtime to match everyone else, especially in the NFL. You have to know the material and try to lead the coverage.” For herself, Russini decided to be tenacious yet affable, bonding with athletes over a shared understanding of what it takes to compete.
“I was taught how to be a TV reporter by some of the best in New York City,” she says. “I’m a reporter that wants to tell the best story, get the information right, in the quickest way possible.”
Seeing the athletes as people has made her a reporter with friends—she texts owners and coaches for life advice, when necessary—and has a network of sources of agents, athletes, coaches, and front office staff more than willing to talk about what’s going on in the sporting world.
She points to her breaking the news that free agent DeSean Jackson would sign with the Washington Redskins as her biggest break. “No one paid attention before I started asking questions. Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t a TV bunny anymore.”
Of course, that was a difficult story to break. Running out of a downtown restaurant after confirming the story, she tripped and broke her phone. Knowing that she could be scooped at any moment, she managed to post the news to Twitter. “Then, I went back to the bar, and ordered a drink.” The next 48 hours were a media storm, and Russini had broken the major Washington Redskins offseason free agency story.
Russini also focuses on giving back to the community. She recently returned to campus for the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, which brings together high school students from all over the country and provides workshops and events with faculty and industry professionals working in the news world in all different mediums and outlets. Russini participated as a panelist in the Careers in Journalism small group sessions and focused on discussing the difficulties and joys of working in the fast-paced, nonstop wide, wide world of sports.
She admits that athletes are a little less guarded with her because she is a woman, but she also deals with people, inside the industry and out, who take her less seriously because of her gender. Recently, 53-year-old Pam Oliver was demoted and replaced on Fox Sports by the younger Erin Andrews, without Fox saying much about why the change was made. And while Russini thinks there may be a female color commentator in the next five years, there are still roles that remain closed off in a world slow to acclimate women holding the microphone. The pressure to always be right and always have the scoop is certainly greater.
“You can be successful,” Russini says. “But everyone is always watching.”