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TV anchor Bell's firing spotlights social media's impact on journalism

Jason Cato
| Thursday, March 31, 2016, 11:18 p.m.
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor
WTAE
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor

Fans of Wendy Bell continued to take to social media Thursday to express support for the fired television news anchor and direct their ire at WTAE-TV, the station that terminated her over a controversial Facebook post.

Hundreds of phone calls, email messages and online comments to the Tribune-Review overwhelmingly supported Bell, whom WTAE fired Wednesday after 18 years.

“This girl is guilty without a trial,” said Phil Moximchalk, 72, of Latrobe. “What did she say that was so wrong? What she said here is basically the truth.”

Bell could not be reached for comment.

At issue was a March 21 message she posted on her WTAE Facebook page that drew widespread criticism for being an example of what some dubbed “white privilege.” The post contained Bell's speculation about the race, backgrounds and family histories of the gunmen who killed five adults and an unborn child last month at a Wilkinsburg cookout. She also commented on the positive work of a South Side restaurant busboy, who is black.

Bell, who is white, later apologized, as did WTAE. The post was removed, and her WTAE Facebook page has been deleted by the station.

A Facebook page, “Demand WTAE Hold Wendy Bell Accountable,” which was started last week, had attracted nearly 1,200 likes as of Thursday afternoon. Another page — “Boycott WTAE-Bring Wendy Bell Back” — drew more than 8,500 likes.

WTAE's official Facebook page has nearly 240,000 likes.

“Public comments aren't always accurate measures,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute in Arlington, Va.

WTAE officials on Wednesday said they fired the popular anchor because her Facebook post was “inconsistent with the company's ethics and journalistic standards.”

Charles Wolfertz, WTAE's president and general manager, did not return a call seeking comment. A spokesman for WTAE-TV's parent company, Hearst Television, declined to comment.

A review of the station's social media policy would be helpful, said Robert Drechsel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

“Why wouldn't they be willing to share it?” Drechsel asked. “That seems to me to be an important piece of information that is missing. A bit of transparency regarding the policies and procedures are pretty darn important.”

Between 50 and 75 percent of a television news station's online traffic is driven from Facebook, said industry veteran Al Tompkins, an instructor at The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“It's a stunning number,” Tompkins said. “Because of that, television stations understand they have to engage people through social media to have any hope to drive online traffic, and then hopefully to air (broadcasts). So TV stations are keen to have talent engage people online — and that means through social media.”

API's Rosenstiel said there are no universal industry standards when it comes to social media policies for news outlets.

“There isn't one standard, a generic set of rules people are pulling off the shelf,” he said.

Television news often operates differently than newspapers, Rosenstiel said.

“You definitely have a dynamic in television where people are not only reporting the news but talking about how they feel about it,” he said. “That's a part of television.”

And it can spill over into social media, the experts said.

“But there's still a line,” Rosenstiel said. “One of the things you have to avoid as a journalist is stereotyping.”

Bell had more than 60,000 Facebook followers before her work account was deleted Wednesday.

Other journalists at Pittsburgh's three major television affiliates are active on Facebook.

WTAE morning anchor Michelle Wright has a Facebook page. She posts information mainly related to stories the station is carrying. So do Kelly Frey and Shannon Perrine, among others.

The station has a Facebook page that doesn't use staff members' identities, posting under the umbrella name, “WTAE-TV PITTSBURGH.”

KDKA-TV has a station page devoted to news stories that has 200,000 followers. Meteorologist Kristin Emery has a work Facebook page on which she posts weather information, and she has another page on which she calls herself a “news personality” and posts personal information. Reporter Cara Sapida also has work and personal pages.

Trib news partner WPXI-TV has a station Facebook page with more than 400,000 followers. Reporters Lori Houy and Jennifer Tomazic post work-related items on Facebook pages that identify them as members of the media. Other staffers' Facebook pages contain primarily work-related items, but some carry personal posts or a mix of the two.

WPXI has a social media policy that stresses common sense — posts are public and forever, and they represent the station as well as the employee, said news director Michael Oliveira.

“We think social media is an important connection to the viewer,” he said. “It's a powerful tool, and you have to treat it as such.”

Channel 11 does not edit employees' posts before they are published.

More stations should consider approving messages before they are posted, said Timira Rush, a KDKA Radio producer for Marty Griffin's show on 1020 AM.

“We have gotten away from what news anchors are supposed to do, which is report the news,” Rush said.

Race is a touchy subject to discuss, said Rush, who is black.

“You have to think about what you post. It's there forever,” she said. “I'm a supporter of Wendy Bell. I like her. But she stepped in it when she made a dialogue about her opinion. And the racial tone of what she said made people feel uncomfortable.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jcato@tribweb.com.

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