Journalist Amelia Knisley loses her job after reporting allegations of abuse at psychiatric facilities in West Virginia

A West Virginia journalist lost her job last month after reporting on alleged abuse of people with disabilities within the state agency that operates foster care and psychiatric care facilities in West Virginia.

Amelia Ferrell Knisley, a reporter with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, said she was told to stop reporting on the Department of Health and Human Resources after the embattled agency’s leaders “threatened to discredit” the publicly funded television and radio network. She later learns that her part-time position has been eliminated.

“I quit my job at WVPB last week following threats from DHHR over my reporting on DHHR’s treatment of people with disabilities,” Knisely wrote. on Twitter Dec 28.

Reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisley
This undated photo shows West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisley.

Amelia Ferrell Knisley/AP

Knisley said in a statement that her news director told her the order came from WVBB CEO Butch Antolini, former communications director for Republican Gov. Jim Justice. Antolini has been CEO since 2021, when his predecessor was ousted after Justice reformed the agency’s board.

Justice has tried unsuccessfully in the past to eliminate state funding for WVPB and has been accused of appointing partisan activists to the board of directors. WVPB receives about $4 million annually in government funding.

Antolini declined to comment, but other officials denied any attempt to influence the coverage. Said William H. File III, president of the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Corporation, said Antolini told the board “he was not coerced or pressured by anyone.”

Knisely was never fired and remains on WVPB’s payroll, File said in a statement, though she said her door key and email were deactivated.

Knisely’s departure comes during a turbulent time for the West Virginia media. Days before she left WVPB, three reporters told the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette Mail they were fired after publicly criticizing an editorial decision made by their company’s president Doug Skaff, who is the minority leader in the state House of Delegates. Skaff agreed and led a video interview with Don Blankenship, a coal company executive who was convicted of safety violations linked to one of the worst coal mining disasters in modern U.S. history.

The departures left a dwindling number of Capitol press members to cover the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.

Knisely’s stories described alleged mistreatment of people with disabilities under state auspices. The department cares for some of the most vulnerable residents in one of America’s poorest states.

Recent data suggests that about every six days a person with an intellectual and developmental disability is locked up on a police cruiser and committed to a West Virginia psychiatric hospital, according to the advocacy group. Disability rights in West Virginia.

After Knisely’s departure from WVPB was first reported by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel last week, both Republican Senate Chairman Craig Blair and Democratic Party Chairman Mike Pushkin called the circumstances surrounding her departure “disturbing.”

Knisley’s coverage of “glaring issues in the DHHR” was “detailed, in-depth and, most importantly, correct,” Pushkin said.

“There is a distinct difference between not liking what the media puts out and working hard to silence them,” Blair wrote on Twitter on December 29.

Knisely was hired as a part-time reporter at WVPB in September. In November, it was transcribed to an email from Bill Crouch, then Secretary of the Department for Human Rights, alleging errors in a story and requesting a “full retraction”.

It never happened, but in early December, Knisely said WVPB’s news director Eric Douglas told her she could no longer cover DHHR due to threats by state officials to discredit WVPB.

A week later, amid mounting criticism, Crouch announced he was resigning.

Douglas confirmed to the Associated Press that he was instructed to tell Knisely that she would no longer report for DHHR, and that Antolini directed him to do so.

On threats from DHHR officials about defaming WVPB, he said, “I’d rather not comment on that.”

On December 15, Knisely filed a complaint with Human Resources about its interference with its press coverage.

Things came to a head later that same day over Knisely’s press credentials for the 2023 legislative session, according to emails obtained by the Associated Press and first reported by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.

Douglas initially informed members of the legislature that Knisely would “play a vital role” in WVPB’s 2023 legislative coverage. But then the station’s chief operating officer let him down from an email saying she wouldn’t need credentials after all.

This upset Senate speaker Jack Bland, who emailed Douglas to ask about it.

“It feels kind of rude and shady to me for someone else to step in and say that one of your reporters won’t have any hearing assignments,” she wrote.

She added, “I definitely wanted you to realize that Butch and Bales were trying to put their fingers in the pie.”

In response the next day, Douglas said he was pulled into Antolini’s office and told that “things have changed with Amelia”. He didn’t appreciate WVPB’s leadership behind his back, he said, “but it’s out of my hands right now.”

“And you’re right,” he wrote, “it feels sickening and shady.”

Knisley said she was told on December 20 that part-time jobs were being cut. Her email and key card were deactivated around that time.

this week, Knisely announced on Twitter She was hired by the Beckley-based newspaper, The Register-Herald, to report on the upcoming West Virginia legislative session. She said her coverage will include developments with the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

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