Lawmaker complains; university appears to cave, fires radio reporter

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 29May2016

If the key players in this chain of events are to be believed, then a University of Tennessee-Chattanooga official fired a radio reporter who worked at the university-operated public radio station because she never verbally identified herself as such while covering a recent story.

However, as the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports the dismissed reporter

maintains she acted within journalistic ethics as she reported the story, and she never concealed her intentions or bulky radio equipment. She did not verbally identify herself as a journalist.

“It was glaringly obvious who I was,” [Jacqui] Helbert said, adding that her NPR press pass hung around her neck while at the capitol.

Helbert said she was wearing headphones and pointing a 22-inch large fuzzy microphone at the lawmakers as they spoke during the meeting.

More about that meeting below. But let’s read further down into the Times Free Press’ story. There, we find that Tennessee politicians later met with a top Tennessee-Chattanooga official and

at least one lawmaker mentioned the state provides funding to UTC, [UTC’s George] Heddleston said.

Whether that message had anything to do with Helbert’s dismissal is unclear, but Heddleston told Nooga. com that he

made the final decision to fire Helbert “based on a violation of journalism ethics.”

As a reminder, the violation was to not verbally acknowledge that she was at the event as a reporter. Nooga.com adds that at least one official with the Society of Professional Journalists thinks the dismissal was clearly motivated by raw politics.

Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, said he was skeptical about the situation involving Helbert.

He said it is a best practice for reporters to clearly identify themselves, and Helbert probably should have spoken directly to the legislators and made it clear why she was there.

But if someone is taking photographs, recording audio and appearing to document an event, Seaman said it’s “hogwash” to assume the meeting is off the record.

And the story Helbert was covering? A group of Tennessee high school students had visited the statehouse to meet with politicians about the state’s proposed transgender bill. Nooga.com reports that one of the politicians said

he was hurt by the situation. He said he was trying to be as compassionate as possible, but he explained that he has different ideas on the bathroom bill than many of the students.

He said there were things he shared that were personal because he didn’t know a reporter was present.

Any chance that the politician got roasted privately (or perhaps publicly) for whatever he said to the students and needed a convenient out?

I’m not suggesting Helbert is blameless here. But let’s weigh the evidence; and as we do I think we will agree that she was fired not because she didn’t verbally identify herself, but because her employers caved to political pressure.

This story likely is not over. Helbert could sue, for example. She also is likely to become a cause celebre for some people who loathe any political interference in journalism and a convenient foil for other people who believe many journalists are deceitful.

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This entry was posted in Journalism, public radio, Tennessee. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lawmaker complains; university appears to cave, fires radio reporter

  1. Pingback: A WUTC public radio reporter got fired, and the firestorm immediately started | START THINKING, STOP FEELING

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