A Tale of Two Journalists
Caught in the crosshairs of social media comment, two TV journalists received very different treatment from their respective employers.
Women in media should not have to choose between defending their appearance and keeping their job.
This is the message aspiring women media professionals ought to be receiving, instead of feeling like their news outlets will not protect them from insensitive critics who complain via social media that they don't fit the preferred standard of beauty.
In late November, the nation received an intimate look into the aforementioned dilemma when a Shreveport, Louisiana, meteorologist lost her job after defending her personal appearance on a social media platform. Rhonda Lee, who worked at KTBS, an ABC affiliate station, was harshly criticized by a viewer on the station's Facebook page. He did not approve of Lee, whom he referred to as "the black lady," or her short, tightly coiled hairstyle. She "needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair," the viewer wrote.
Lee responded to his comments by defending her African American ancestry and natural hairstyle. "Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty," she asserted in her comment response. "Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society." She ended her response by thanking the viewer for watching the station's broadcasts. Station leaders later fired Lee for violating the station's social media policy.
Around the same time last year, a white, plus-size anchor in La Crosse, Wisconsin, received a critical email from a viewer about her weight. Jennifer Livingston of the CBS affiliate WKBT was told she shouldn't "consider [herself] a suitable example for [the] community's young people, girls in particular." After her husband, a fellow WKBT anchor, posted the email to his Facebook page, she received an outpouring of support. Livingston was allowed to respond to her critic on air during an editorial segment. "You know nothing about me but what you see on the outside; and I am much more than a number on a scale," she asserted. Her station fully supported her decision. Her job was never in jeopardy.
The way both situations were handled has been heavily debated in journalism circles and in the court of public opinion. Both women faced criticism from viewers attacking their professional appearance. Some have questioned whether race played a role in the varying outcomes.
"I really think [KTBS management] could have just let me send that post to the guy and let it go, and let that be everyone's teachable moment," Rhonda Lee told me in a phone interview. She went on to say that right after she responded to the viewer, she sent her supervisors a screenshot of her post. Instead of receiving encouragement and reassurance that she took the best course of action, she was told, "Don't do that anymore."
According to a copy of an KTBS email to employees posted on The Huffington Post, Lee's former station's social media policy only allows for "one proper response" to viewer complaints, which must include the contact information of a staffer that can address their concerns. The policy allowed her no leeway to respond to criticism about her personal appearance let alone support from her employer.
Media organizations should ramp up their sensitivity to social media issues and go to greater lengths to shield their employees from personal attacks, especially on-air talent. If management does not want employees defending themselves after being attacked on these platforms – where they are often encouraged to engage their audience – measures should be taken to curb frivolous and hurtful criticisms.
While social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are still evolving as reporting and audience-engaging tools, policies should be in place that outline procedures for dealing with issues before they arise.
News outlets can become more responsive to social media issues by establishing commenting guidelines and actively practicing comment moderation. Just as comment policies are found on many broadcast and print journalism organizations' websites – including NBC News and The New York Times – guidelines and standards should be prominently displayed on their Facebook pages. PBS' Facebook page serves as an ideal example.
I agree with the perspective taken by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the largest professional organization for journalists of color in the country. The group issued a statement in support of Lee shortly after her termination. NABJ encouraged media companies to "protect employees on official social media platforms that are used to engage news consumers" and "allow greater latitude when it comes to employees defending themselves in these forums."
All on-air talent face some level of scrutiny, but it seems women anchors and reporters face even more severe attacks about their appearance than that of their male counterparts. Those who do not sport long, straight hair and a slender figure seem to be the most vulnerable to harsh criticism and crude remarks.
Lee and Livingston were both chastised for not reinforcing a stereotype, which is why it's important now more than ever before for media outlets to promote diversity and highlight the reality that not just one standard of beauty exists. Women in the industry should be reassured that they don't have to fit the cookie-cutter image often embraced in mainstream media. KTBS missed an opportunity to express this message when they chose to dismiss Lee.
Lee, who is still "feverishly" looking for employment, said she has been asked before by former employers to make her hair "more pleasing."
"What they're asking me to do is change my complete biology and I don't think that that's fair and I tell them this upfront," she said.
Yes, women journalists – just as their male counterparts – are in the public eye. And as such they assume the role of community watchdogs who present information that help the public make informed decisions. They should not, however, be required to absorb verbal assaults by viewers who feel the need to share hurtful comments about body weight, attire, hair texture or other issues unrelated to the quality of their work. Women journalists have earned the right to assume whatever standard of appearance they choose and deserve to be backed by their employer when that standard is attacked.
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