Livingston Retort Raises Ethical Questions

Opinions are divided over whether WKBT La Crosse, Wis., anchor Jennifer Livingston's four-minute rebuttal to a viewer’s email criticizing her weight was an appropriate use of air time. But with the incident going viral and leading to her appearances on national media, it certainly has brought the issues of bullying and body image to the forefront..

In the two weeks since her on-air response to a viewer who criticized her weight, WKBT La Crosse, Wis., anchor Jennifer Livingston has appeared on the network morning shows, shot a mock news show promo on Ellen and has become a symbol for standing up against bullying.

The attention has been “stunning and overwhelming,” says Anne Paape, news director of the Morgan Murphy-owned CBS affiliate. “There is a lot of learning here and I am looking forward to being in the spot when this is behind us and we can figure out what it all means.”

The reaction has been mostly positive. Schools are using Livingston’s video as a learning tool. And the station is donating money to bullying prevention groups for every individual who signs a petition in support of the cause.

But not all of the journalism world is embracing Livingston’s on-air retort without qualification.

Some industry watchers say Livingston pushed the boundaries of broadcast journalism ethics by using four minutes of a newscast for a personal, albeit pointed, rebuttal to viewer email calling her not a “suitable example” for young people because she is overweight.  

“I understand her anger and that we should not be intimidated or bullied by cyber commentators. I also think her intervention sparked good discussion about obesity and how people react to obese people,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Stephen Ward, who heads the Madison campus’s Center for Journalism Ethics.


“That said, I am still uncomfortable when journalists use their power and access to media for their own ends — whatever ends they may be, good or bad,” Ward says. “In particular, I am uncomfortable with using a newscast as the forum for such a personal intervention.”

A more personal “stern rebuttal” from Livingston as well as, say, a larger news story on obesity that included Livingston’s story would have been a better choice “than an emotional, personal response in a newscast,” he says. So would have an on-air public forum on the topic.

Bill Wheatley, a Columbia University professor and former executive vice president of NBC News, says “the Jennifer Livingston matter doesn’t lend itself easily to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ judgments.” He joins several other academics who say there are a range of factors — like what sort of vetting or one-to-one communication takes place before a newscast is turned over to personal business — that must be weighed before putting actions like Livingston’s in one category or the other.

“But I would also say that news people need to develop thick skins because there’s no shortage of nasty people out there who like nothing better than to belittle others, sometimes in the most vile terms,” he says.

In her on-air retort, Livingston said she and her colleagues get a “healthy dose of critiques” from viewers throughout the year, and “we realize it comes with having a job in the public eye.” When this particular email came in on Friday, Sept. 28, Livingston “tried to laugh off the very hurtful attack” on her appearance as well, she said.

But the issue took on a life of its own when, after several personal exchanges between Livingston and her detractor, her husband, WKBT evening anchor Mike Thompson, posted the email to his Facebook page later that same day, Paape says.

“And when it went to social media it was a game changer,” she says. “It brought so many people into the tent.”

The groundswell continued over the weekend, and by the following Monday, local radio stations were calling Livingston in hopes of having her as a guest on their morning shows, Paape says.

At that point, Paape told Livingston “to use her voice” in the conversation how she saw fit, never specifying that meant going on air.

Later that day, Livingston decided to address the issue on the following morning’s newscast.

Livingston was unavailable to speak with TVNewsCheck (she’s scheduled to appear on Katie today), but Paape defended her decision to speak out.

“With Jennifer, we were comfortable,” says Paape. Livingston, a 15-year market veteran, has a particularly personal relationship with viewers, having ongoing conversations touching on everything from early struggles with infertility to posting pictures of her kids today.

“She has this relationship with people and we are the station who allows it,” Pappe says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. It certainly would not be a good fit for all of our anchors, and it wouldn’t be a good fit for many newscasts. This was truly a local conversation that caught fire,” she says.

Yet in some newsrooms, a conversation like this one is unlikely to ever get started.

RTDNA Chairman Vince Duffy, news director of Ann Arbor-based Michigan Radio (WUOM-FM), says he spends little time on that sort of negativity, and “will actively shield reporters” from personal criticisms that don’t have merit. “I don’t need my reporters to worry about that,” he says.

Duffy says he is more concerned with listeners’ valid concerns about content, and “trolls” who disparage people who appear in newscasts and “never really expect that they are going to get that kind of treatment from the audience.”

Although Michigan Radio reporters do not respond to detractors on-air, Duffy says he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with Livingston taking center stage for a few minutes. Whether doing so is appropriate is a call that should be left to individual news directors, and based on factors like a TV personality’s relationship with the audience and how much viewer interaction there is, he says.

“It’s journalism with a small ‘j’ but it certainly struck a chord and if our job is to open conversation than she certainly has done that,” Duffy says. The issues being discussed as a result — bullying, obesity and body image — also are worthy, he says.

The timing of Livingston’s reply also makes it more palatable, since there is more latitude on morning newscasts than evening ones, says Arizona State University journalism professor Bill Silcock.

Silcock says he uses a three-pronged model developed by philosopher Sissela Bok when weighing newsroom ethical issues like those raised by Livingston:

  • “Consult your conscience. She surely did.
  • “Look for alternatives — did she? Did she call him and speak directly to him? Did he get a chance to come on the air or offer a video?
  • “Have a public dialogue about the decision. I hope that station did this. Surely the world has.”

Regardless, Northwestern University’s Caryn Ward Brooks says Livingston’s plight is a sorry reminder of how the industry has changed since Brooks first started in TV news in Miami, when an anchor who “was not young, not svelte, not pretty … for a very long time owned that market.”

“This was in the ’80s. Somehow between then and now we as an industry have decided that women in television news have to look a certain way to be successful and that is wrong.

“Sexism is the elephant in the television newsroom. It’s there but no one wants to talk about it much less address it. Jennifer Livingston’s experience is an outgrowth of that experience and sexism.”

Poynter’s Al Tompkins could find nothing wrong with the broadcast. “Is news time in the morning in La Crosse (DMA 128) so precious that we can’t afford four minutes to talk about something like this? Probably not.”

“News isn’t always the same,” he adds. “When I look at a newspaper, even a great newspaper, I find all sorts of different ingredients that go into it, sections that include advice columns, recipes and crossword puzzles.”

On top of that, “It’s a great story,” Tompkins says. In his opinion, Livingston is grappling with some of the same issues as Kate Middleton did when she was photographed topless last month.

“It’s all different shades of the same argument, which is: what’s fair when you’re a celebrity?” he says.

Whether Livingston’s retort technically qualifies as broadcast journalism is irrelevant, he says. “I would challenge you to find four more minutes that you or any other La Crosse station have produced in the last months that have produced a more engaging conversation than this.”

As Brooks puts it, “Clearly, Livingston’s story struck a nerve with her audience and beyond, and that is news.”

Read other Air Check columns here.

Comments (5)

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Christina Perez says:

October 16, 2012 at 12:26 pm

If a reporter is permitted to use air time to respond to every jerk who hurts his or her feelings, then it is MANAGEMENT that is to blame for a misuse of the public airwaves. That’s the story here — a management failure.

Brad Dann says:

October 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Why is everyone continuing to miss the point that this was a private email sent to the anchor, it went public because the anchor’s husband put it on his FB page. The person who wrote has a point of view, he did not write the email in what I would consider to be “bullying” language and he has basically declined to discuss it in public. IMHO this is a situation where someone in the station wanted to use this to make a point about bullying, but it doesn’t measure up and it doesn’t have a place in a newscast. I don’t want to necessarily blame the news anchor, but she would be better off just hitting delete on these kinds of emails and moving on. Giving it publicity really serves no purpose.

Michael Martin says:

October 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Totally agree with FederalGuy- when this story broke, all I could think was that it wasn’t bullying at all- the writer sent a private email, without any defamation or threats, simply stating that they thought the reporter had a duty to keep her weight in check as a public figure that could impact the body image of children. Now, agree with that thought or not, it’s a long way from bullying- if the writer wanted to bully, he could have called her names, and posted it on social media. The reporter chose to make it public, and chose to make it about bullying, not about her role as a public figure or free speech. She got her wish, 15 min of fame.

    Stacey LaBelle says:

    October 16, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Regardless if you agree or disagree with whether Ms. Livingston’s on air response was “an appropriate use of air time”. I think commenters are missing the mark about bullying. Bullying is not defined by only the actions that are done publicly. . .personal attacks whether done privately or played out in a social forum are unacceptable. Bullying does not have to contain threats, defamation, or derogatory language. Just because the author of the email was articulate does not mean that it wasn’t an intentional criticism meant to hurt. Ms Livingston is a local role model that chose to use her voice in a way that reflected her high standard of character. Many public leaders and figures have done this very thing over the years for various issues: Barbara Walters, George Clooney, Bono, Michael J. Fox, Magic Johnson, Oprah, and Ellen. But to the kid who is teased. harassed, bullied or made to feel less than. . . .relating to everyday people (service men, policewomen, news anchors, teachers, clergy,etc), and finding others in their community that can serve as role models is very powerful! Kudos to WKBT and Ms. Livingston. Addressing this real life example has farther reach and impact than a segment about bullying as a scripted interview. . . . .

Adam Causey says:

October 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I can’t believe anyone hates Mrs. Livingston for defending herself. People have a right to speak their minds, within station owners’ guidelines and time constraints. But was it bullying? Not at all.