Former WTAE anchor Wendy Bell filed a federal lawsuit Monday claiming wrongful termination and racial discrimination against the television station she said encouraged her to post her opinions to social media.
Bell was fired in late March for violating journalistic ethics and the station's standards for what was deemed a racially insensitive Facebook post after five adults and an unborn child died in a mass shooting during a backyard cookout in Wilkinsburg. Police haven't charged anyone with the shooting.
"You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts," Bell wrote. "They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They've grown up there. They know the police. They've been arrested. They've made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough. Now they are lost."
She went on to describe a black, male teen she saw working at a South Side Works restaurant moving "with a rhythm and a step that gushed positivity."
Bell wrote, "He's going to Make It."
Citing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, her attorney, Sam Cordes of Samuel J. Cordes & Associates, said that had she expressed the same sentiment as a black person, Bell never would've been fired.
"The employer has, at any stage, the right and ability to edit," he said. "This was not a Wendy Bell Facebook page, it was a Hearst/WTAE Facebook page that Wendy Bell was encouraged to write on to increase ratings. She was encouraged to comment on stories and cases that she covered."
"I can't tell you that it's OK to do something and then turn around and fire you when you do it," Cordes said.
Media ethicist Kelly McBride with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said it's pretty common for journalists to get help from editors or social media staffers within their own newsrooms, usually when the media professional is a "rock star" and too busy to man his or her own account, or when the journalist feels ill-equipped or unfamiliar with the technology.
"You can edit things. You can also apologize," she said. "I've seen lots and lots of journalists say totally dumb things on Twitter and Facebook that they just should not have said."
There's a protocol, she said.
"You take it down. You acknowledge that you took the post down and, if you mean it, if you're genuine, you apologize for being dense and inflammatory and alienating to the audience," McBride said. "You demonstrate in your apology that you understand what it was you did."
WTAE officials publicly apologized for the incident and met with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation after complaints from viewers and local media reports reached a crescendo. Bell was fired shortly after.
Representatives of Hearst Television Inc., did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
McBride said she isn't surprised Bell's comments drew the ire of the black community, particularly those in the media.
"In her statement, she reveals certain biases which she seems to be attributing to an entire group of an entire ethnicity, or at least an entire age group of a certain ethnicity," she said. "It's hard to see in what context that would not be inflammatory."
Her comments dismiss all black teenagers, McBride said, and "that ends up harming all black teenagers, and maybe all members of the black community."
Cordes contends in the lawsuit that Bell was repeatedly praised for her social media personality, with administrators calling her a "model anchor and newsroom leader." Because she's white, the station assumed her Facebook comments were racially pejorative, he said, "but they were not."
Hearst and WTAE were within their rights to monitor Bell's account and regulate her speech, Cordes said, but discipline must be consistent for all employees.
In the lawsuit, Bell claims WTAE ignored behaviors by two other male on-air personalities. If successful, she asked to be reinstated at WTAE with backpay through at least March 30.
It takes about two years from the time a complaint is filed to the time it gets to trial, Cordes said. Depositions could begin in as little as four months.