The firing of Rhonda Lee is the topic journalists of color are talking about across the country. The African-American meteorologist at KTBS-TV in Shreveport, Louisiana, was fired for responding on Facebook to a viewer for his racist remark.
Lee told blogger Richard Prince of Journal-ism that she was fired for defending a comment about her short afro. Apparently a viewer suggested on Facebook that “the black lady” could wear a wig or grow it out. He also wondered if she was sick with cancer. She did what many of us would do–she responded. She told him on Facebook that she was healthy and was happy with her “ethnic hair.”
This was the second time she had responded to a viewer who had used racial overtones in a Facebook post. The other was about the station choosing too many kids of color for a station project. The viewer said maybe the segment should be on the BET Channel. Lee once again responded to the viewer in a respectful tone telling him that the choosing of the kids was random.
TAKING THE ISSUE INTO HER OWN HANDS
What are you suppose to do when you get racist comments from viewers in emails and Facebook messages? What are you suppose to do when news management ignores the comments and lets them sit on the website for all to see?
I don’t know Rhonda Lee, but I have been in her place when it comes to viewers and their racist comments. I’ve been called derogatory names in emails. Yes even “spic.” I was told in emails not to pronounce my last name like I do in Spanish. Viewers would say “You’re in America, speak English!!!” This after they just heard me give a television report in English.
I would often tell my managers at my former station in Dallas about the comments, even show them the emails. But as white managers they were not trained to deal with such remarks. So they would make “mental notes” and often say “keep us posted.”
In the case of Rhonda Lee she took matters into her own hands. She realized the news managers weren’t jumping in to respond or to defend her on Facebook. The viewer had the upper hand. What her news director, Randy Bain (email@example.com) did about the racist comments is not known, but he also had a responsibility to defend her.
FIRED OVER AN UNWRITTEN POLICY
I think the General Manager at KTBS-TV copped out by firing Lee. His managers didn’t know how to defend Lee on Facebook, maybe didn’t even care that someone criticized her hairstyle—so they took the easy way out. He fired her over an “unwritten policy.” A policy that apparently exists in the minds of the news managers at the station. Was Lee suppose to read their minds?
Now is that a company line or what?
Sirven should have shown Lee “respect” by defending her when that racist comment was made on Facebook. Sirven should have given Lee “respect” by having a social media policy in WRITING.
DIVERSITY NEEDED IN MANAGEMENT
Firing an employee, especially an on-air talent is not the answer. Managers like Sirven need “Diversity Sensitivity 101.” You don’t punish the person who was attacked on Facebook–you figure out how to deal with the nasty viewer.
Sirven and his news director could have used Lee’s case as a learning tool. How to deal with racists comments on Facebook. Maybe even put together a written policy on how to deal with such issues on social media and emails.
I hear there are no managers of color at KTBS. For starters, it sure does help to have diversity in management. I’m sure a person of color in management would have acted quickly on the Facebook comment, because it was just plain wrong.
Sirven needs to put himself in Lee’s shoes. But unfortunately he’s just another “white manager” who sided with the white viewer instead of defending his own employee. His own news family member. Was it fear or ignorance? Well if he thought the issue was going away—it is not.
NOTE TO MR. SIRVEN: This firing is going to be the topic of panels in journalism and social media conferences for a long time. I strongly suggest that you and Mr. Bain figure out a way to defend your employees of color, because you still have some. Man up boys!
- News Director: Randy Bain, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: 318-861-5880
- General Manager, George Sirven, phone: 318-861-5821
Rebecca Aguilar is an Emmy award-winning reporter based in Dallas, TX. She has 31 years of experience in journalism. She’s also a news consultant and public speaker.