Free Speech And The Firing Of Wendy Bell

Apr 1, 2016

The firing of award-winning journalist and 18-year WTAE-TV news anchor Wendy Bell made both local and national news. Wednesday, Pittsburgh's ABC-TV news affiliate  “ended its relationship” with the news anchor, deeming her comments “inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”

Ms. Bell had been under fire over a controversial Facebook post making harsh speculations the suspects involved in the Wilkinsburg Shooting were black, had multiple siblings from different fathers, as well as other remarks that could be deemed racially insensitive.

Jeff Ritter, chair of media, communications and technology at La Roche College and Damon Young, editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com, joined Essential Pittsburgh to weigh in on Ms. Bell’s firing.

Young says his biggest issue with Ms. Bell’s post is how presumptuous she was in making her speculations about the murderers’ identities, paired with her unrelated experience with a young, male, African American server at a restaurant in South Side.

“The only thing connecting those murders and that server was the fact that she assumed those murderers were black and this server happened to be black too,” Young says.

Young adds that while the connection and implications themselves were offensive, her suggestion that her friendly interaction with the server will keep him from being a troublemaker in the community is also misguided.

“The implication [of Ms. Bell’s post] was ‘Me extending this hand of kindness to this server is what’s separating him from being a mass murderer,’” Young says.

From a journalistic standpoint, Ritter says Ms. Bell, as one of the “faces of WTAE,” should have upheld the standard of objectivity.  While Ritter says it is fine to have a personal blog or post on Facebook, everything she says is ultimately reflective of her organization.

“We really don’t need to have a separate channel coming to us that says that she’s got these kinds of views and these kinds of thoughts about perpetrators of crimes, about servers in the restaurant, about all kinds of things,” Ritter says.

Although news organizations often encourage online interaction between reporters, anchors and their viewers; a line must be drawn between establishing a role in the community, and creating a platform for controversial judgments to be made. 

So what is the standard of online behavior those in the public eye should be held to?

While technically limiting freedom of speech for their employees, Ritter says social media policies are essential to every organization in protecting their brand.

“Social media is amplifying and exposing what used to be, in some cases, private, in small groups, or within your circle of friends,” Ritter says, “This is a new world of public communication.”

Young states Ms. Bell’s post reflects the principle of “white privilege,” or the idea that if you are white, your thoughts and opinions matter more than everyone else’s.  He also addresses issues involving the ongoing struggle with racism in the Pittsburgh community, and hopes Pittsburghers will have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of race. 

Regarding Ms. Bell’s career as a journalist, Ritter feels it will be a challenge to regain her credibility.  However, he suggests she could raise her profile in ways deemed more sensitive to racial issues, and eventually make a return. 

While Young does not disagree with WTAE’s decision to fire Ms. Bell, he feels she would need to take a leading role in producing extended features on racism and white privilege in order to rebuild her presence.

“Perhaps a situation like this can be refocused and turned into some type of learning experience,” Young says.

For WTAE, Ritter says they now have a huge opportunity to become both a market and community leader in addressing the entire issue of how local news is covered.

“If they could move this [local news] in a direction that says ‘we’re going to really inform people, not just about things that happened and things that will happen, but to really delve into issues that have significance and are important to everyone.’”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.