In the aftermath of the Globe’s report last Friday that Comcast SportsNet New England reporter Jessica Moran had resigned amid questions about her relationship with Red Sox manager John Farrell, there have been recurring suggestions on various outlets and media that the two, as adults, should be able to make their own decisions.
That is true in a bubble, but with a journalistic caveat that both should have understood and apparently neglected: A reporter and a subject cannot have a romantic relationship. It’s ethically unprofessional, and makes a difficult job even more of a Sisyphean task for female reporters striving for and deserving of respect who are left incurring the ancillary fallout.
“It’s frustrating that people were saying it wasn’t a big deal,’’ said Jen McCaffrey, who is entering her third season as the Red Sox beat writer for MassLive.com and The Springfield Republican.
“It’s not just about two people having a relationship. It’s a professional environment. You work to be respected in this industry, and to have to be constantly proving yourself because of what someone else does, that’s unfortunate.
“You know your own integrity and your colleagues know your integrity, but the fans who read you don’t necessarily know you. They’re going to have their own impressions that are probably ingrained from way back when on what it’s like being a woman in the locker room in that culture. And they’re not always what you want them to be.
Nicole Auerbach, a former Globe intern who now covers college basketball and football in a high-profile role for USA Today, said she has had discussions with male colleagues about the challenges a woman faces in building a career as a sports journalist.
“The unfair thing with women is when one woman does something, it reflects on the entire gender,’’ said Auerbach.
“It’s a male-dominated world. It makes other people’s jobs more difficult. And every time something like this happens, it gets more difficult. Every day I’m thinking about what I’m wearing. I’m thinking about how I’m asking for sources’ phone numbers, or calling or texting them. I have to be aware of the impression I’m giving and whether boundaries are clear, which are things my male colleagues don’t have to worry about.”
McCaffrey, the only female reporter who travels regularly on the Red Sox beat, takes a similarly pragmatic approach. She dresses in a professional style, choosing not to wear jeans or dresses, even on hot summer days when her male colleagues will wear shorts to the ballpark. “Sports reporters and baseball reporters aren’t necessarily known for their fashion, I guess,’’ she said with a laugh.
There are secondary aspects as to why it’s a no-no.
Had Red Sox players been aware of Farrell’s relationship with Moran, it could have been taken as a cue that pursuing female reporters was fair game, thus encouraging a ribald culture in the clubhouse. It also may have made them wary of Moran — was Farrell sharing information about players that should have been kept within the confines of the clubhouse? And then there is the significant possibility of a perception of conflict of interest by the audience.
“Journalists have to put their audience first,’’ said Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and vice president of academic programs for the Poynter Institute.
“And whenever you have something that creates a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest, as an individual journalist or as a journalism organization, you have to be able to communicate to your audience how you are managing that conflict of interest or minimizing the conflict of interest. So when something is revealed that was secret, you lose all of your ability to do that. What the audience will conclude is that you didn’t manage this conflict of interest.”
A CSNNE spokesperson declined comment on whether the network would implement a policy regarding whether its on-air talent can date team personnel. NESN has a policy but does not make it public. Major League Baseball leaves it up to the individual teams, according to spokesperson Pat Courtney; the Red Sox do not have a policy or guidelines in place.
The argument can be made that policies are necessary, if not overdue.
Former Red Sox in-game reporters Hazel Mae and Heidi Watney often found their names in the gossip columns, sometimes with a ballplayer’s name bolded in a nearby sentence. Mae, who now covers the Toronto Blue Jays, politely declined comment for this column. But in 2005, she told reporter John Molori that, “NESN has never put rules down to me about dating players, colleagues or anyone else. If they did, I wouldn’t work there.”
Late in 2013, NESN reporter Jenny Dell and Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks announced their engagement after much speculation. Dell, now an NFL reporter for CBS, and Middlebrooks, in camp with the Brewers, were married in February.
It is not difficult to understand why relationships happen.
Young, attractive, and in the players’ case, rich people are in close proximity for months on end, including often on the road. Such relationships have become so prevalent here in recent years that the Washington Post saw fit to put together an aggregated collection of all the athlete/reporter relationships (both real and rumored) in Boston. It happens elsewhere, too — former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe began dating Fox personality Carolyn Hughes when he joined the Dodgers. She lost her job, and they were eventually married. Erin Andrews dates hockey player Jarret Stoll. ESPN college football reporter Sam (Steele) Ponder married NFL quarterback Christian Ponder. Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski married former “SportsCenter” anchor Karie Ross.
There are different relationships and different circumstances. But they have an effect. ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan is an icon in sports journalism and an idol to a younger generation of reporters such as McCaffrey and Auerbach, both of whom are in their 20s. Earlier this week, MacMullan called WEEI’s “Dale and Holley” program and delivered a verbal knockout of co-host Jerry Thornton, who had suggested Monday that Moran was much more to blame than Farrell.
MacMullan said she has a tremendous amount of respect for some younger female journalists in this market — she was quick to cite the work of CSNNE’s Abby Chin and Trenni Kusnierek (the expected replacement on the Red Sox beat for Moran) during an interview — but worries about the haphazard and inconsistent state of journalism.
“I’m a journalist,’’ she said, “and sometimes I wonder if people know what that means anymore. I know when I became a journalist, you had to be objective. That was the rule. That was what you were supposed to be. Sometimes you really liked somebody and they were lousy at what they do, and you had to be willing to write that they were lousy at what they do. And sometimes, someone could be a real idiot, a real jerk, but perform at a very high level. You had to do that, praise them, as well. It’s impossible to be objective about someone when you’re in a personal relationship.
“Now, this isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last time,” MacMullan said. “But it disappoints me nonetheless. I don’t think either one of them would deny that what they did was unprofessional. There’s no place for it in the business. I’m talking about my business. And my business is journalism.”