UTC faces backlash over reporter firing


Authored By chloe.morrison

UTC is facing public backlash after firing a reporter, and a local resident has created a petition to bring attention to the situation and attempt to right the perceived wrong. 

“The university needs to apologize, repost the article, offer Jacqui her job back and stay hands off in WUTC’s operations,” John Dills, the Chattanooga resident who created the Change.org petition, said via email. “WUTC should be independently run (while still receiving university funding/affiliation); otherwise, anytime a politician gets squeamish, we may see the same thing happen again.”

UTC officials fired Jacqui 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 headphones, carrying a 22-inch fuzzy microphone and tape recorder, but she didn’t explicitly identify herself as a reporter to lawmakers. 

Some UTC officials and state legislators were upset that she didn’t identify herself as a reporter, which is a violation of NPR ethical standards. WUTC is expected to follow those standards as an NPR affiliate.

Officials fired Helbert based on a violation of journalistic ethics, and members of the public had a lot to say about that. 

Dozens of people commented in support of Helbert via social media after WUTC posted an explanation of her termination. 

Many of the comments asserted that UTC officials kowtowed to legislators who were upset with the story. 

Some commenters said they would be pulling financial support of the station. 

Dills, like many of the commenters, said he’s always been a strong supporter of NPR. But he was upset about how officials handled the situation and dismayed that it appears there was pressure from lawmakers.

Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, one of the politicians who met with students, said he didn’t call UTC and did nothing to pressure officials. 

Click here to read more background, including what Brooks said about the situation. 

Helbert said that it was Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who called the station. And at a previously scheduled meeting, other lawmakers brought up the article, and there have been accusations that lawmakers threatened to withhold funding from the school or station over the issue. 

George Heddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communication for UTC, said lawmakers brought up the article casually and briefly, and didn’t threaten to pull funding for the school or station. 

Dills also found fault in the fact that officials took the article down. Pulling an article with no explanation isn’t a best practice in journalism.

Dills also said:

I think it was extremely shortsighted and reactionary. Honestly, this story has gotten way bigger than I think it would have if it weren’t handled with censoring the article and terminating the person who wrote it. I think UTC overreacted in a ridiculous manner, while I’m of the opinion that what Jacqui did wasn’t a violation of ethics but just not following best practices; this is the type of small mess-up at work that you should be coached on, not fired. Plus, I’m really not that understanding of why the lawmakers feel it was such an unethical thing. They’re publicly elected officials; any meetings that they have with members of the public should all be a matter of public record. There should never be “closed-door meetings.”

Advocates for Helbert have also launched this site.

UTC officials didn’t respond Sunday to a request for further comment. 

Helbert said-despite a few “trolls”-she’s felt overwhelming support. 

“Almost every single comment has been positive, which is so incredible,” she said via Facebook message.

Although the petition calls for WUTC to give Helbert her job back, Helbert said she’s not sure that could happen, but she loved her job and role at the station. 

“Radio is my passion,” she said. “But UTC has proven that they will not allow fair journalism, and journalism that speaks to power, under their roof … Station staff and school administration going on the record might pressure the lawmakers to do the right thing and own up to blackmailing the university.”