You may have heard the story of Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist at Shreveport, La., TV station KTBS who was fired for responding to viewer criticism on Facebook.
The firing raises some old and new questions about how journalists should (or shouldn’t) engage online with caustic critics and troublesome trolls.
The station’s decision
Lee felt compelled to respond to one complaint that a segment was featuring too many “people of color,” and another complaint that criticized Lee’s short Afro hairstyle for not conforming to “normal” appearances.
The station said she violated its policies. Another KTBS reporter, whose name we do not know, was fired simultaneously for similar behavior.
KTBS Station Manager George Sirven provided me a written statement (identical to one the company posted on its Facebook page) explaining the decision:
On November 28, 2012, KTBS dismissed two employees for repeated violation of the station’s written procedure. We can confirm that Rhonda Lee was one of the employees. Another employee was a white male reporter who was an eight year veteran of the station.
The policy they violated provided a specific procedure for responding to viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. Included is an email that was sent to all new department employees informing them of this procedure. This procedure is based on advice from national experts and commonly used by national broadcast and cable networks and local television stations across the country.
Unfortunately, television personalities have long been subject to harsh criticism and negative viewer comments about their appearance and performance. If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station’s official website, there is a specific procedure to follow.
Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.
One particular part of that statement stuck out to us: “This procedure is based on advice from national experts and commonly used by national broadcast and cable networks and local television stations across the country.”
Is that true? And if non-engagement is a widespread policy, should it be?
It depends on the culture
I asked Vincent Duffy, chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association and news director at Michigan Radio. He replied: “If they’re saying lots or most of media outlets have this type of policy — I don’t know. I can tell you it’s not ours.”
Duffy explained how his public radio news organization handles these situations:
I think it depends to some degree on the culture of the media outlet and how much they trust their people. Here, we are fairly transparent. It might be kind of odd, but we have 21 administrators to our Facebook page. We sort of self-police each other.
We have rules and guidelines about how you engage with the public, but we’re encouraged to respond politely and answer questions.
But Duffy said his perspective from the public broadcasting world might not apply in commercial broadcasting. There’s a difference between having to actively reach out to win over new “members,” versus trying not to offend an existing commercial audience.
“If you’re a commercial business, it’s a little bit more of a defensive posture. You want to make sure that you don’t create anything that’s going to create bad press for you and have advertisers not want to be associated with you,” Duffy said.
“These fights on the Web can get really ugly sometimes, and it’s understandable when a commercial media outlet might say the best thing to do is not to respond at all, or to have one point person who is always going to respond.”
What the guidelines say
The RTDNA has a set of social media and blogging guidelines. They include a couple of passages that encourage journalists to engage in discussions, respectfully:
Social media and blogs are important elements of journalism. They narrow the distance between journalists and the public. They encourage lively, immediate and spirited discussion. …
Bloggers and journalists who use social media often engage readers in a lively give-and-take of ideas. Never insult or disparage readers. Try to create a respectful, informed dialogue while avoiding personal attacks.
Al Tompkins, Poynter senior faculty for broadcasting and online, helped draft those guidelines. When I asked him about this particular case, he told me a TV station may have a point in wanting to regulate responses to viewer complaints:
If it is a factual complaint or an issue that would benefit from the insight of the person who covered a story, if the interaction helps the public understand a process, then that is what social media does very well…
But to use social media to respond to a complaint/comment about hair seems like an elephant gun approach to a viewer comment.
Viewer complaints about hair and clothing come with the territory. Every anchor endures it. I certainly have heard viewers complain about my weight, my ties and my accent.
A week ago an anchor friend of mine got a blistering comment from a viewer who could not stand the fact he wears light brown shoes with a dark suit.
When you invite yourself into people’s homes, they consider themselves family and then you invite them to talk with you on social media. Don’t be surprised if they comment on things you considered off limits. Social media is not the place to complain when a viewer has a comment you don’t like.
Now, I would add, outright racist comments are different. Those commenters may be worthy of banning.
If you do not want critical comments, don’t offer the platform for open discussion.
Jill Geisler, our senior faculty for leadership and management, said that it seems counterproductive to offer a forum for online engagement and then tell your journalists not to engage:
I thought the purpose of inviting online comments is to have a two-way conversation, to build community, to engage and mutually inform. … To preclude responding to complaints would eliminate the opportunity to engage and be transparent.
Perhaps stations want to leave that option to management, but it strikes me as incomplete. Having guidelines that encourage employees to respond civilly and professionally, with information rather than invective, seems appropriate.
The guidelines can also make it clear that though engagement is a positive thing, employees also have the option of not engaging with commenters that are abusive or offensive.
If KTBS did indeed have a policy stating employees should not respond to comments, did it let its Facebook fans know to expect that? Geisler asked.
It comes down to trust and courage
As far as I can tell, this type of strict ban on journalists responding to complaints is not “commonly used” by broadcasters or other news organizations “across the country,” though we invite you to share examples in the comments if you know of any places where it is policy.
But is it a good idea?
The decision boils down to two factors: trust and courage.
Do you trust your journalists enough to handle these interactions professionally, and do you have the courage to weather the fallout of a mistake or two along the way?
This debate reminds me of another I wrote about recently — whether journalists should have their social media posts edited in advance.
I agreed that on some highly controversial and sensitive subjects, it might be a good idea. Others, like NPR’s Andy Carvin, said “No. Do your best and own your mistakes.”
In our poll with that story, only 5 percent said a journalist’s social media posts should always be edited if for no other reason than “it’s a news org’s policy.” Similarly, banning any direct response to online complaints seems overly broad.
But no matter what policy your employer does or doesn’t have, journalists should still think carefully before jumping into the fray. You may feel like you’re having a frank, one-on-one exchange with a viewer who needs to be set straight, but never forget you’re making a public statement.
“It’s amazing to me sometimes how really mean and cruel people can be online,” RTDNA chairman Duffy said. “It can get emotional, and I can understand the desire to respond back in perhaps an unprofessional manner to those posts. So you just have to be very, very careful. Because once it’s out there, it’s out there.”