National Public Radio issued a statement Monday rebuking UTC’s decision to fire a WUTC-FM reporter, pointing out that removing the controversial article she wrote was a breach of NPR standards.
That’s significant because university officials said they fired the reporter, Jacqui Helbert, for violating NPR standards by not identifying herself as a reporter when recording state lawmakers. WUTC is an NPR affiliate and is expected to follow the organization’s ethical standards.
UTC officials fired Helbert, formerly a producer and assistant broadcaster for WUTC, after she reported a story about a high school gay-straight alliance that recently visited lawmakers in Nashville to discuss proposed “bathroom bill” legislation.
She said she went there wearing press credentials and full radio gear, but she didn’t explicitly identify herself as a reporter to lawmakers.
Some UTC officials and state legislators were upset that she didn’t clearly identify herself.
Many local residents said it appears that lawmakers pressured university officials to pull the story and fire Helbert, an accusation that at least one legislator denied.
Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices, and Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior vice president of news and its editorial director, made the following statement about the situation Monday:
The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga has said the decision to terminate the employment of reporter Jacqui Helbert was made by university officials, not the news editors at WUTC. The station’s news staff says the decision to remove from WUTC’s website the story that Helbert had done about meetings held by state legislators with students from a gay-straight alliance club was also made by university officials, not WUTC’s editors. (That story has been archived here.)
Serious questions have been raised about whether university officials were pressured to take those actions by state lawmakers-who could cut state funding to the school and WUTC.
In both cases we at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge. Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction.
This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don’t like the stories they hear or read.
To be sure, Helbert should have said explicitly to the legislators that she was there to report a story for WUTC. That said, the fact that she was wearing press credentials and was holding a 14-inch-long microphone that she moved around as people spoke would be obvious signs to any public officials that they were being recorded-most likely for some type of public posting.
Her mistake was not, her editors say, a firing offense. Instead, it was a learning moment for a new reporter and she was counseled about her mistake. Her editors did not view the story as fatally flawed-she had not hidden her equipment or misled anyone. They say they would not have removed it from WUTC’s website if they had not been ordered to do so. Removing a story-except in the most extreme circumstances-is a breach of the standards practiced by NPR and other credible news organizations.
We at NPR agree with the editors’ thinking. They should have been allowed to handle the situation as they-the journalists-felt was right. We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station’s editorial independence in the future.
UTC officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Monday night.