Romantic relationships between reporters and sources


SPRINGFIELD – I read an obituary in the New York Times last week that dealt with an issue newspapers and other media outlets haven’t yet fully come to terms with: romantic relationships between reporters and sources.

The Times had this to say: “Laura Foreman, a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1970s, was surely not the first journalist to become romantically-involved with a source. But she was among the first to have that romance, with a powerful politician, blow up into a public scandal.”

By the time the affair was disclosed — and The Inquirer learned that the politician had given her more than $20,000 worth of gifts, including jewelry, furniture and a fur coat and helped her buy a 1964 Morgan sports car — she was working in the Washington bureau of The New York Times.

The Times fired her – for her conduct at her previous employer.

And her journalism career came to an end at the ripe age of 34.

Longtime Times editor Abe Rosenthal said of the matter he didn’t care if his reporters were having sex with elephants — as long as they weren’t covering the circus.

In my 33 years in journalism, I’ve seen this scenario play out a lot of different ways. Ok, not the elephant sex – but reporters dating sources.

I don’t have an easy answer. But I can tell you it’s a subject that makes a lot of people in the business uncomfortable.  

“You really can’t tell somebody they can’t have a relationship – everyone has a right to a private life,” Gary Sawyer, an assistant professor of journalism at Iowa State University said.

His view was echoed by Jill Geisler, an expert in newsroom management at Loyola University in Chicago.

“When this comes up, you have to move the reporter off of their beat,” she said. “What you hope is that you have a transparent enough organization that the reporter will willingly come forward and have a clear-eyed perception of what this could mean for the news organization.”

 Shortly after I left the Las Vegas Sun in 1999, one of the best reporters I’ve ever worked with was fired after the editor received an anonymous letter claiming she was romantically involved with a source. (I don’t believe the assertion, but the editor fired her claiming even an appearance of impropriety needed to be dealt with.)

I can’t help but wonder if a male reporter -- or a senior member of management  -- would be held to that nebulous standard. 

On the other hand, many years ago when I was a reporter in Iowa the person covering courts pursued, dated, married  -- and divorced – a prosecutor. And she covered his trials through each step of the relationship. 

If I were a defendant on trial, I doubt that I’d be reassured that the watchdog was sleeping with the opposition. 

“I think it’s fair to tell a reporter who is dating a member of the county board that she won’t be covering county board meetings,” said Charles Wheeler III, an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield. 

But longtime journalist and state government observer Mike Lawrence added with smaller news staffs it is more difficult today for reporters to recuse themselves from areas where they may have a potential conflict of interest. 

Beginning in 1993, Springfield Associated Press Bureau Chief Terry Mutchler had a five-year same-sex romantic relationship with state Sen. Penny Severns, a rising star within the Democratic Party. Within six weeks of meeting, they were living together.

“What I did was unethical because it was a conflict of interest and it violated the trust readers place in those who report the news,” she said. “In a perfect world, I should have disclosed the relationship to my superiors – but I couldn’t,” Mutchler said during a telephone interview on Monday. 

She said part of the risk of being open about the conflict of interest with her superiors at the AP was that she would have been “outing” Severns and she feared her organization’s leadership may have felt compelled to report it as news.

“In Central Illinois, during that era, it would have really hurt her politically. And it certainly would have hurt my journalism career as well,” she said

After Severns died of breast cancer, Mutchler was referred to as a “family member” in news stories about the senator’s death. The news stories were written by fellow statehouse reporter, which would indicate the romance was not as stealth as Mutchler and Severns thought.

That, of course, begs the question: Why was the relationship alluded to in news stories postmortem but not before? After all, if it was newsworthy after someone died wasn’t it even more relevant when both parties were alive and the conflict of interest was immediate? 

Mutchler said at times she pulled some punches when covering her partner. 

“Sometimes I would write something that would really irritate Penny. Other times, I would try to cast her in a better light,” she said. 

For example, when other journalists reported that Severns was “convalescing,” Mutchler reported that she was “alert and answering questions.”

Lawrence said disclosure is the key. He said it’s important for readers or viewers to be aware of potential conflicts. And for this reason, news organizations must strive for transparency. 

Wheeler added, “At the end of the day, an editor has to look at a journalist’s work and see if they are being fair. Because people have work lives and private lives and some individuals are able to successfully separate the two.”

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. [email protected]

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