When does who you’re dating become your company’s business?
According to what NBC Boston brass have told staff, journalists can date or marry whomever they want, but if there’s a conflict of interest or potential for one, they should disclose the relationship to a manager.
Failure to do that apparently cost award-winning reporter Karen Hensel her job at the TV station. In an e-mail to staff, Hensel said she was fired because she is dating Auburn Police Chief Andrew Sluckis Jr.
“Someone filed an anonymous complaint to corporate that I am dating the Auburn police chief, which I am,” according to a copy of Hensel’s e-mail obtained by the Globe. “I did not do any stories while I dated him and thought self-policing myself was sufficient.”
NBC Boston executives won’t say anything beyond confirming that Hensel “is no longer employed by the station.”
Reached by phone, Hensel told me: “I’m exploring my options. I’m not sure what I am going to do next.”
Sluckis did not respond to a call for comment.
Full disclosure: I am a paid contributor to New England Cable News, which is owned by NBC.
So, did the NBC station overreact, or should Hensel have known better?
Remember, this is the network of Matt Lauer, the longtime “Today” show cohost whose sexual misconduct in the workplace made him among the biggest poster boys of the #MeToo era. Even two years after Lauer was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, the peacock network continues to face repercussions.
Hensel’s situation is completely different from Lauer’s, but it’s still problematic. Here’s why: Hensel covered Sluckis, including in a May 31, 2017, segment that featured Sluckis talking on air about police restraint after a high-speed chase, and in a June 4, 2018, piece with Sluckis as one of three police chiefs calling for judicial reform after their officers were killed by career criminals.
Let’s say we believe Hensel when she says that she did not begin to date Sluckis until after those stories aired and she has not covered him since then. But neither viewers nor her bosses (at least officially) knew that until after that anonymous tip about her relationship.
“It’s the infamous ‘It’s the appearance of a conflict, even though nothing may have happened,’ ” said Janet Kolodzy, chair of the journalism department at Emerson College. “That is problematic.”
Kolodzy, who previously worked as a writer, editor, and producer at CNN, said Hensel should have told her bosses about her relationship with Sluckis.
“She needed to be as upfront as soon as anything went from professional to personal,” Kolodzy said.
The NBC Boston station provides ethics training and instructs employees to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of them. Conflicts, for example, could arise with financial interests or relationships.
But NBC’s policy apparently wasn’t clear to Hensel, and she seemed to want to keep her private life private. Instead, as she wrote in her e-mail, she knew not to cover Sluckis anymore and that she believed “self policing myself was sufficient.”
“It is not impossible for a journalist to act ethically and still have a personal relationship with a person in public life, but disclosure is the key here,” observed Al Tompkins, senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism training and research center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Tompkins teaches and writes about ethics in newsrooms.
“It becomes the company’s business when a journalist’s personal life affects the credibility of the journalism,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We find ourselves in journalism at a time when the public wants to know that journalists neither fear nor favor the people or institutions we cover.”
Whether the failure to disclose a romantic relationship merited Hensel’s firing is a whole other issue. I don’t know all the details about the circumstances of her firing.
Part of the issue may be that it’s awkward to disclose a romantic relationship.
“She thought she understood conflicts, and she was taking care of it. When the potential conflict involves romance and private life, employees might be hesitant to share it,” Boston employment litigator Andrea Kramer said. “The burden should be on the employer to be really clear.”
NBC Boston could have given Hensel a warning or suspended her, but the station took what seems like a zero-tolerance stance on a conflict of interest.
Five years ago, NESN parted ways with reporter Jenny Dell after she began dating then-Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Dell was involved in Sox broadcasts, and shortly after publicly confirming her relationship with Middlebrooks, she left the sports network. She has since married Middlebrooks. (NESN is owned by the Red Sox, whose principal owner, John Henry, also owns the Globe.)
Kolodzy, Emerson’s journalism department chair, said if she were Hensel’s boss and found no conflicts in her reporting, she would have doled out a lesser punishment, such as an unpaid leave. After that, Kolodzy would have devised a plan on how to proceed going forward.
“This is not in the realm of Lauer,” Kolodzy said, “but I do believe there is a fear among managers.”
Hensel should have disclosed the relationship, but whether the punishment fit the crime is a matter of debate.