It’s nice of my favorite baseball team to supply me with ethics stories, don’t you think? This one has management ethics, relationship ethics, journalism ethics, sexual harassment and professionalism.
The Boston Globe reported last week that Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell and Comcast SportsNet New England reporter Jessica Moran, who covered the team, were romantically involved. Moran promptly resigned. This quickly degenerated into the usual ethically muddled discussion by members of the public who watch George Stephanopoulos interview Hillary Clinton and see nothing amiss, and have been so badly taught the ethics basics that they couldn’t identify a conflict of interest if they tripped on one, and members of the news media, who, if anything, are worse. Among the questions being floated, and their somehow elusive answers…
These are consenting adults. Why aren’t they free to have a relationship?
Because they are professionals, with special duties to their constituencies and stakeholders, and the relationship between a reporter and her subject undermines independence, loyalty, trust and competence.
Why is it always the woman the one who has to lose her job?
It isn’t. The journalist has to lose her job, because the journalist breached the basic ethics of the profession. The baseball manager’s conduct is wrong, but comparatively tangential to his duties at worst. It is still seriously unethical, however, and undermines team culture and the status of other women who have duties involving the team. Farrell, by dating Moran, was sending a message to his players and other team personnel that these women are legitimate targets for sexual courtship rather than workplace colleagues. The relationship may have constituted third party sexual harassment, making other women feel as if team leadership had sent the message that they weren’t to be taken seriously as professionals.
Why is everyone making a big deal about this? She’s a beautiful young woman, covering a team of men. Isn’t this to be expected?
It is the fact that it is expected that makes it so difficult for women to be taken seriously in the male dominated world of sports reporting. Says Nicole Auerbach, who covers college basketball and football for USA Today:
“The unfair thing with women is when one woman does something, it reflects on the entire gender. 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.”
What’s so tricky about covering the Red Sox and having a romantic relationship with the manager?
Yes, people really ask this. Such a relationship creates a screaming conflict of interest. The public can’t trust a reporter to be objective about a team when she has a special relationship with the manager. Would John Farrell’s mother be regarded by the public as a reliable source of objective analysis of her son’s team? Would she feel free to call for her son’s firing?
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and vice president of academic programs for the Poynter Institute, told the Globe:
“Journalists have to put their audience first. 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.”
What the audience will conclude is that you can’t be trusted.
Not that John Ferrell shouldn’t be disciplined for this, for he should, He undermined the team’s coverage, he created a conflict for Moran (with her assent and participation), and his conduct was unprofessional. The bottom line is, however, that the secret affair doesn’t affect his management of the baseball team. Moran’s misconduct directly interferes with her ability to do her job as a reporter
ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan pronounced herself depressed by the episode while making it clear that she understands the ethical values involved:
“I’m a journalist, 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. 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.”
John Farrell’s business is winning baseball games. Ruining female journalists’ careers is just an avocation.
Facts and Graphic: The Boston Globe