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Wendy Bell controversy highlights 'consequences' of social media missteps, panel says

Jason Cato
| Monday, April 11, 2016, 5:45 p.m.
Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothas, talks about how he approaches social media during a panel hosted by Point Park University in Downtown on Monday, April 11, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothas, talks about how he approaches social media during a panel hosted by Point Park University in Downtown on Monday, April 11, 2016.
Duquesne University public relations and advertising student Vanessa Santos, 26, of Cranberry, asks a question during a social media panel hosted by Point Park University on Monday, April 11, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Duquesne University public relations and advertising student Vanessa Santos, 26, of Cranberry, asks a question during a social media panel hosted by Point Park University on Monday, April 11, 2016.
Brandi Smith (right), senior social-digital strategist at Smith Bros. advertising agency, weighs in on social media use and how to avoid crossing the line during a panel hosted by Point Park University in Downtown on Monday, April 11, 2016. Also on the panel (pictured from left to right) are Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothas, Kristen Perko, analytics engineer at LunaMetrics, and Kristine Sorensen, KDKA-TV anchor and host of 'Pittsburgh Today Live.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Brandi Smith (right), senior social-digital strategist at Smith Bros. advertising agency, weighs in on social media use and how to avoid crossing the line during a panel hosted by Point Park University in Downtown on Monday, April 11, 2016. Also on the panel (pictured from left to right) are Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothas, Kristen Perko, analytics engineer at LunaMetrics, and Kristine Sorensen, KDKA-TV anchor and host of 'Pittsburgh Today Live.'
Kristine Sorensen, KDKA-TV anchor and host of 'Pittsburgh Today Live,' answers questions from the audience during a social media forum hosted by Point Park University, Downtown on Monday, April 11, 2016. Also on the panel (pictured from back to front) are Damon Young, editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas, Kristen Perko, analytics engineer at LunaMetrics, Sorensen, and Brandi Smith, senior social-digital strategist at Smith Bros. advertising agency.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Kristine Sorensen, KDKA-TV anchor and host of 'Pittsburgh Today Live,' answers questions from the audience during a social media forum hosted by Point Park University, Downtown on Monday, April 11, 2016. Also on the panel (pictured from back to front) are Damon Young, editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas, Kristen Perko, analytics engineer at LunaMetrics, Sorensen, and Brandi Smith, senior social-digital strategist at Smith Bros. advertising agency.

A critical blog post about former WTAE-TV anchor Wendy Bell generated more than 350,000 unique visitors for VerySmartBrothas.com, the site's co-founder and editor-in-chief said Monday at Point Park University.

“I didn't expect that to have the legs that it did. I expected it to be a story that was a local story that petered out after a week or so. But it became a national story,” Damon Young, 37, of the North Side said during a panel discussion on using social media hosted by the Downtown school. “I guess I might have helped it become a national story.”

Bell, 46, was fired March 30 after a controversial post made on her work Facebook page.

Bell did not attend the Point Park event, and WTAE anchor and sports director Andrew Stockey backed out as a panelist. Young spoke in his stead.

Much of the nearly two-hour discussion focused on matters other then Bell, including ways to promote brands through social media, how to measure its analytic impact and what, when and where to post thoughts and comments.

Bell, however, was not far from the topic at hand, including marketing material that said the event was in “the wake of a situation in Pittsburgh that received national attention.”

Kristine Sorensen, an anchor with KDKA-TV, declined to comment on Bell specifically. She said she takes a conservative approach to posting on Facebook and tries to keep her messages focused on community events and less serious topics in an effort not to run afoul of journalistic standards.

“We all have personal biases and opinions. We are all human,” Sorensen said. “But our goal as journalists is to try to see things as unbiased as possible.”

Point Park University School of Communication and its Point Park News Service sponsored the event; Tribune-Review investigative journalist Andrew Conte helped organize it and served as emcee.

WTAE fired Bell, who is white, after she speculated in a March 21 Facebook message about the suspected race, background and family histories of the gunmen who killed five adults and an unborn child last month in Wilkinsburg.

No arrests have been made.

In the same post, Bell praised the work of a young black man who was working as a busboy at a South Side restaurant where her family ate recently, saying, “He's going to Make It.”

She later apologized for the post.

Bell, an award-winning anchor and reporter for 18 years at WTAE, could not be reached for comment.

Sorensen said KDKA-TV does not have a written policy regarding social media use but has an ongoing dialogue about how it is used. Employees' comments are not vetted or edited prior to being posted, she said.

“They trust us as journalists to use our judgment,” Sorensen said.

Before Bell's Facebook post, a Google search of her name yielded 6.1 million hits. Now that search results in 30.9 million hits, said panelist Brandi Smith, senior social-digital strategist at Smith Brothers advertising agency on the North Shore.

Freedom of speech does not mean being free of consequences from an employer, she said.

“There is a consequence that you may have to pay for what was said,” Smith said.

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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