Like most journalists today, Britni de la Cretaz is accustomed to being on the receiving end of comments from critical readers and opinionated trolls. As a freelance writer who frequently tackles important and uncomfortable subjects, both about herself and about U.S. society, she has been critiqued, shamed and harassed; publicly available pictures of her have even become disturbing memes.
“As a freelancer, it’s really hard to get that support. In an office, they can screen your mail and calls. As a freelancer, there’s not an investment on the part of the publication.”
But nothing really prepared her for the response to one of her most recent features, “The Yawkey Way,” a longform investigative article for Boston’s alt-weekly DigBoston about racism and the Red Sox. The subject seems straightforward enough – racism anywhere is hardly a surprise – but this one struck a hyperlocal nerve, with its centering of black voices and experiences, Red Sox leadership’s acknowledgment of racism, and a focus on the inflammatory trash talk of a local talk radio show.
The firestorm began almost immediately after the story came out. The talk radio show’s supporters were particularly aggressive, calling De la Cretaz out for declining the invitation to appear as a guest. Calling her lazy, weak and cowardly (and other names that can’t be printed here), they also addressed her as “honey” and commented on her sex life. Commentary from some colleagues wasn’t much better. The PBS show “Beat the Press” had a panel discussion about “The Yawkey Way,” and host Emily Rooney was deeply critical of De la Cretaz.
But the controversy did have two encouraging outcomes: The Boston nonprofit group The Transformative Culture Project awarded her its Nellie Bly Award, saying: “Her reporting on racism in Boston sports, especially among baseball fans and on WEEI, shed light on a well-known but rarely discussed issue in our community. It also exhibits her ongoing commitment to tackling tough issues through storytelling.”
And even more important to De la Cretaz was the support she received from DigBoston’s editor-in-chief, Chris Faraone, and DigBoston’s publisher. It was this support, she says, that set DigBoston apart from some of the other freelance outlets she writes for.
I spoke with De la Cretaz and Faraone separately by phone about this controversial feature, about how crucial editorial support is for freelancers doing high-stakes reporting, and how other outlets can follow Faraone and DigBoston’s lead. The responses have been slightly edited for clarity.
What did you anticipate the effects of your feature might be?
De la Cretaz: I did anticipate harassment. I knew that the people I was covering in the piece, the morning show hosts, have this band of listeners that likes to take to Twitter and harass people. The hosts are very active on Twitter, too.
What I didn’t expect was the anger from mainstream press. Our local PBS broadcast has a show called “Beat the Press” with a bunch of veteran reporters, and I didn’t expect the fallout of both the article itself and The Dig being insulted. When one of the women on the panel defended me against the harassment, another journalist on the panel – a woman – said I brought this on myself. And she brought up a piece I’d written about living with herpes. So she talked about my herpes on public television.
I guess this was an experience that shows how hard it continues to be for women in media.
But your feature has had really positive effects too, right?
De la Cretaz: Yes. One of the hosts [of the radio talk show, WEEI’s Kirk and Callahan] was taken off the air temporarily. He was really upset about the piece and he said a bunch of stuff about me, but I guess the catalyst was that he lashed out at the Red Sox because I have in the piece Red Sox on the record saying that they find a lot of content on the show offensive. That’s the first time they’ve spoken out about their broadcast partner. And that was the big bombshell of this piece.
The reaction to that was that Kirk [Minihane, one of the hosts] went on a rant and said things about members of the Red Sox as a whole, naming members. He was taken off the air. The station [called it] “personal time.” Later, the president of the Red Sox went on a show and talked about my story and confirmed the incident at the heart of the story, the incident that happened to Adam Jones, saying that they stand by their statement to me.
The days following the feature’s publication were really tough for you. What kind of support did Chris and DigBoston provide that were out of the ordinary in your experience as a freelance journalist?
De la Cretaz: There were a few reasons why I placed this story with The Dig. One, I wanted a local outlet, and two, Chris said, “Do you have any stories nobody will let you write?” and three, I knew that if I wrote this story for The Dig that Chris would (a) have my back and (b) do the story justice – that he’d allow me to let the facts speak for themselves without being inflammatory or sensationalist.
I also knew that Chris had written a book about Breitbart and that he was intimately familiar with the fallout with conservative media, and I knew that he was knowledgeable about the realm we were entering.
I don’t know if he has a formal policy, but I will say that I’ve interviewed for a few high-profile sportswriting jobs, and one of the questions I ask as a woman, and as a woman who writes about topics that others don’t want to talk about, is what their policies are for taking care of their writers. It’s something I always think about. As a freelancer, it’s really hard to get that support. In an office, they can screen your mail and calls. As a freelancer, there’s not an investment on the part of the publication.
Chris has been super available to me. Even though he was away, he was available and that was reassuring. I know he’s busy and that he’s laying out next week’s paper and he’s going to a conference, and he’s still taking two minutes to text and check in with me. He also wrote a letter from the editor that reaffirmed the importance of talking about racism. [Faraone wrote a second letter Aug. 2, in which he specifically addressed “Beat the Press” panelist Emily Rooney and her July 28 segment on De la Cretaz’s article.]
The publication itself actually reached out to me too and said: “We want you to feel safe and supported. We want you to have legal help and security help if that’s a path you need to go down.”
“The people making the business decisions haven’t faced the situations that writers are facing in real time, on the street.”
How intentional are DigBoston’s policies about supporting freelancers, particularly with stories like Britni’s that are likely to provoke significant backlash and trolling?
Faraone: Our structure and culture at The Dig is different because we’re small. There are three or four editors. At a bigger publication, you’d have three or four more editors on top of them. The smaller staff means we’re all in communication, we all know about a project. Not many necks had to be convinced to get stuck out in this case. Britni is a great person to work with across the board. Britni has shown that she is the baseball writer to be reckoned with at this juncture. She’s so prolific and she’s so competent. On top of this, she writes about a lot of political issues that are the other major issue at play here. She was really the expert here. She had a lot of cited research. It was about me getting out of the way and listening to her. I believed in her sources. We let her know we were there for her.
Why do you think so many newsrooms have a problem providing the kind of support to freelancers that you provided to Britni?
Faraone: The whole media system is not built to support freelancers. There’s the issue of insurance, and that’s important, but there’s other stuff, too. It blows me away when I hear about—even though I’ve been through it myself—how little so many editors care about their writers. We’ve all freelanced for places that have household, respectable names, but they’re not run like that. The people making the business decisions haven’t faced the situations that writers are facing in real time, on the street.
But there’s other stuff too. As a white male editor, I try to be totally conscious about not telling people about things that they know better than I do. The advice to editors is, in this case, is to get out of the way. Britni knows baseball. She knows social justice. We’ve all had editors who don’t know as much as we do about a subject and yet they push things on us. We need to allow writers to lead editors more.