December 13, 2012

The National Association of Black Journalists says it’s saddened by KTBS-TV’s decision to fire meteorologist Rhonda S. Lee. In a statement, NABJ encouraged media companies to “allow greater latitude” when employees defend themselves against critics online.

NABJ believes Lee’s managers missed a golden opportunity to initiate a community dialogue about respect, identity and diversity, particularly as it relates to redefining standards of beauty, what is aesthetically acceptable in television news and the value of on-air journalists beyond appearance.

What happened to Lee is disturbing. Although the nation continues to become more diverse, biases based on race, ethnicity, gender and culture persist in newsrooms.

Lee was fired Wednesday after she responded to one complaint about her short Afro, and another about there being too many “people of color” on one of KTBS’s segments.

The incident has raised questions about newsrooms’ social media policies and whether journalists should respond to complaints online. It has also renewed attention to a deeper issue: how — and whether — to turn insensitive, ignorant comments into a thoughtful, informative discussion about race.

Some news sites turn off comments on stories about race. With social media, though, it’s harder to “turn off” comments. Some journalists have found that when covering race-related issues, it’s beneficial to moderate social media comments and respond to them.

Former Huffington Post writer Trymaine Lee told Poynter last year that he often responded to readers’ critical tweets when covering the Trayvon Martin shooting:

This is a national conversation, and just because it’s controversial doesn’t mean you should hide from it. The more controversial it is, the more important it is to have a conversation about what the story’s addressing.

Policies that restrict journalists from responding to critical comments suggest that it’s OK to ignore ignorance. The best social media policies don’t list restrictions; they offer guidelines and best practices that teach us how to respond to diatribe — and create a healthy dialogue.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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