Wendy Bell, fired over her controversial Facebook posts, says she didn’t get a 'fair shake'
March 30, 2016 11:42 PM
Wendy Bell, former anchor at WTAE-TV, worked at the station for 18 years.
By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wendy Bell, an award-winning journalist with WTAE-TV for 18 years, was fired Wednesday for comments she made on her Facebook page.
A statement from Hearst Television, the station’s parent company, said, “WTAE has ended its relationship with anchor Wendy Bell. Wendy’s recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
WTAE-TV president and general manager Charles Wolfertz III confirmed the news and declined to comment. A spokesman for Hearst Television also declined to comment further. News of her firing drew hundreds of online posts within the first half-hour, with some people saying they would be switching to another station.
Ms. Bell did not return phone calls for comment from the Post-Gazette, but she told the Associated Press that she didn’t get a “fair shake” from the station, and that the story was not about her, but about “African-Americans being killed by other African-Americans.”
“It makes me sick,” she told The Associated Press when reached at her home on Wednesday. “What matters is what’s going on in America, and it is the death of black people in this country. ... I live next to three war-torn communities in the city of Pittsburgh, that I love dearly. My stories, they struck a nerve. They touched people, but it’s not enough. More needs to be done. The problem needs to be addressed.”
Ms. Bell joined WTAE in 1998 and has won 21 regional Emmy Awards.
After a mass shooting March 9 in Wilkinsburg in which police still have made no arrests, Ms. Bell wrote, in part, “You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday... they are young black men, likely in their teens or early 20s.
“They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs.”
She then wrote about a young African-American man, this one a worker she saw in a SouthSide Works restaurant. She said she called over the manager and praised the man, adding, “I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special.”
Since originally posting on Facebook, Ms. Bell edited the statement and eventually removed it. It created an online stir, with parodies on sites such as verysmartbrothas.com and thousands of comments for and against the longtime newswoman on sites such as reddit.
Many of the readers posting comments on a Post-Gazette.com story about the firing Wednesday said they would be switching stations to express their outrage over WTAE’s actions.
Ms. Bell later apologized for her Facebook post. In part, the apology read, “I now understand that some of the words I chose were insensitive and could be viewed as racist. I regret offending anyone. I’m truly sorry.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, that Facebook page had been taken down. Her profile on the WTAE-TV website also had been removed.
Asked to weigh in on the firing, a journalism ethics expert said freedom of speech is a tricky thing when practiced by those who must adhere to the facts.
“Journalists always — and I don’t use ‘always’ all the time — must be careful about what they write or say because the audience, the readers and the viewers, are depending on them to provide information that they can trust, to be as fair and impartial as possible,” said Aly Colon, a professor of media ethics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and a former director of standards and practices at NBC News.
Ms. Bell crossed a line when she stated opinion as fact regarding an ongoing news story, he said. Those who write and report the news “have a special responsibility to serve their audience in a way that helps them see what is true, what is accurate and, also very important, authentic.”
“And by authentic, I mean it gives a wholeness to the reporting,” Mr. Colon said.
Charles Gee, an assistant professor of multiplatform journalism at Duquesne University, said his graduate class in management was just discussing the Bell situation Tuesday. He said ”para-social” relationships are important to TV stations, where the on-air talent is encouraged to appear accessible to viewers.
“I think the use of social media in television helps the personalities connect in other ways that maybe they don’t get through the screen,” Mr. Gee said. “You develop a bond with that person on the screen; it could be a movie screen or a TV screen, like it could be the person next door.”
The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, in a news release Wednesday night, said its board members and WTAE management had met earlier in the day to discuss the Bell matter and other issues related to diversity.
The announcement of the firing occurred before the meeting took place, and the federation stressed that it had not called for Ms. Bell’s termination.
It said the station agreed to partner with it on several matters including a meeting twice a year to review WTAE’s coverage of African-American communities and other issues related to diversity and inclusion. Part of that will be working with the federation to recruit journalists of color for its newsroom.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.
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