Rhonda Lee shouldn’t have been fired

Responding to racist comments on her former TV station's Facebook page was the right journalistic decision

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Social media causes a lot of problems for journalists.

Freelancers have been suspended for insulting others; staff reporters have been fired for griping about their workplaces. By now, most news organizations have rules and guidelines that are meant to encourage journalists to spread information instead of rumors, to be honest about who they are (that is, to avoid posting anonymously) and to remember that what they circulate on social media reflects on the reputation of their employers. When the guidelines are clear and thoughtful, they should be respected by reporters and enforced by news organizations.

This all went awry in the recent firing of Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist at TV station KTBS in Shreveport, LA, who was fired for replying to viewer comments on Facebook.

Did she write something offensive? Did she use salty language? Did she air internal grievances about the station? Did she go off on an inappropriate rant or spread misinformation?


What Lee did was respond to racist comments (one of them directed at her) on the network’s Facebook page in a graceful and educational—if in one, slightly snarky—way.

According to Richard Prince’s Journalisms, a viewer wrote in October:

the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news. what about that.

The same day, Lee replied directly to the viewer on Facebook that she was the reporter the viewer was talking about and she didn’t have cancer. She continued:

I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.

Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.

In a second incident about a month later, a different viewer wrote on the station’s Facebook page, in part:

Not to start any trouble, because I think that the annual ‘Three Minute Smile’ is a great function and I love to see kids so happy. Am I the only one that has noticed that this year, all the kids, lets say, are people of color? … . Seems like some racism going on to me. Just saying

Lee responded:

The children are picked at random. So there goes your theory that they are selected for their color. I would like to think it doesn’t matter who the child is. If you truly just want to see the kids happy your message had a funny way of showing it.

Soon after, Lee was fired. KTBS News Director Randy Bain has since released a statement that said, “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 after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued.” That procedure had been circulated in an email on August 30, but Lee told Journalisms that she responded, thus violating the policy, because the comments were obviously racist and, though she brought them to the station’s attention, nothing was done.

Personnel decisions are often more complicated than they appear to the public, but Lee seems to be in the right here. News organizations are not ordinary businesses. They have a duty to the public to inform and educate. What Rhonda Lee did in responding to those Facebook posts was correct misinformation on a Web page administered by the station as well as educate viewers about African American culture. Lee was using social media as a journalist; she did exactly what she should have.

But she shouldn’t have needed to do anything, because the station should have responded first, either by taking the comments down (most organizations have a policy of deleting racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise inappropriate comments) or by replying in a way that supported its African American staff members and viewers.

Because let’s not forget that, according to the US Census Bureau, just over half of Shreveport is black. Those African American viewers are watching the station and reading its Facebook page; letting racist comments linger is offensive to them and implies that the organization doesn’t respect its black viewers.

News organizations’ social media guidelines shouldn’t be about image control, and they shouldn’t be about gagging journalists. They should be about maintaining high standards of journalism. Lee did her job by correcting a cultural misapprehension. She should be applauded, not fired.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.