The William Sharpe Jr. Hospital is shown in Weston, West Virginia.

The William Sharpe Jr. Hospital is shown in Weston, West Virginia.

(Photo: West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services)

West Virginia Journalist Fired in Alleged Retaliation Over Reporting on Abuse in State Facilities

Amelia Knisely's reporting allegedly sparked threats from the state health department.

A journalist at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the state's public television and radio news network, was fired from her position after reporting on abuses taking place at state-run psychiatric facilities—reporting that allegedly sparked threats from state health officials and pressure on the network to change its coverage of the state government.

Amelia Knisely published a report on November 3 about abuses suffered by people with disabilities at William R. Sharpe, Jr. Hospital and other facilities run by the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), and a call by state Senate President Craig Blair, a Republican, for GOP Gov. Jim Justice's administration to investigate the hospital.

Allegations detailed in the reporting included that facility staff attempted to cover up their responsibility when a woman at the hospital died after being fed "an improper diet," that residents at a group home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) were left without working plumbing for months, and that a man with IDD died "after three staff responsible for his care refused to provide CPR."

On December 6, Knisely told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel Wednesday, the station's news director informed her that she "could no longer write about DHHR" and that the order came "from WVPB executive director Butch Antolini," who days after her report had received a letter from DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch.

Crouch had demanded a retraction of the story, and as Knisely told the News and Sentinel, a DHHR spokesperson "contacted WVPB leadership and threatened to discredit WVPB if I continued reporting on the health department."

"It is crucial for the press to hold government agencies accountable," Knisely told the newspaper. "It must be emphasized that these events followed my reporting on the mistreatment of people with disabilities, who are in state care."

Knisely was told she should no longer report on DHHR on the same day that the state legislature's Joint Committee on Health held a meeting with Disability Rights of West Virginia (DRWV) regarding issues at Sharpe Hospital and other DHHR facilities.

The reporter filed a human resources complaint on December 15, and according to the News and Sentinel, WVPB officials interfered in the process of Knisely obtaining press credentials to cover to state legislature that same day, with Eddie Isom, the station's chief operating officer and director of programming, writing to communications officials at the legislature and copying Antolini, but leaving news director Eric Douglas—Knisely's supervisor—out of the communication.

"[Isom's email] came later this afternoon, and I noticed you're conspicuously absent from it, and, well, that's just not OK with me," wrote Jacque Bland, communications director for the state Senate. "You're the news director, and you are the person who is in charge of your newsroom, period, and it feels kind of gross and shady to me that someone else would dip in and say that one of your reporters won't have any assignments related to the session."

Other journalists pointed out that Knisely has reported extensively on vulnerable populations in West Virginia and elsewhere, including people with disabilities and children in the foster care system.

"It really sucks the vulnerable people Amelia Knisely was trying to help with her reporting likely won't get that help because WVPB didn't have her back," said Lauren Dake, a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The threats DHHR allegedly lodged at the station following Knisely's reporting, and her firing, are the latest evidence that "a free and open press is not just something that's at risk overseas, but here at home, too," said Talley Sergent, a public affairs official at the U.S. State Department.

"A free press doesn't have to be fair and balanced as corporate marketing gurus make you believe," tweeted Sergent. "It MUST be accurate. When a reporter reports a story that shines a light on government wrongdoing, mismanagement, and criminal behavior, that's not a sign to twist arms and fire the reporter. It's a sign that someone in the government needs to be held accountable and the issue must be addressed and resolved."

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