A fired WUTC-FM employee disputes that she violated journalistic ethics whilereporting a story about a high school gay-straight alliance that recently visited lawmakers in Nashville to discuss proposed “bathroom bill”legislation.
Although the station removed the story from itswebsite, it can be readhere.
Jacqui Helbert, formerly a producer and assistant broadcaster for WUTC, traveled with the students from Cleveland High School who wanted to voice their concerns about proposed legislation that would require public schools to use the restroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificates.
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.
“It was glaringly obvious what I was doing,” she said.
But some UTC officials and state legislators didn’t see it that way.
They said that she didn’t identify herself as a reporter, which is a violation of NPR ethical standards, which WUTC is expected to follow as an NPR affiliate.
GeorgeHeddleston, senior associate vice chancellor of marketing and communication for UTC, said he made the final decision to fireHelbert “based on a violation of journalism ethics.”
Meetings with legislators
Students met with state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, andstateRep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland.
Brooks said he got a request from one student who wanted to meet, and he was surprised when 15 or 20 students showed up, but he kept the appointment anyway.
“There was never an identified reporter in the room,” Brooks said.
Brooks 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.
“You, in good faith, accept a meeting from high school kids in your district and it can be twisted for … false pretenses,” he said.
Helbert’s audio and article show Bell questioning how “transgender” is defined.
“Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday. Wednesday, I might feel like a dog,” he said, according to the audio.
The story reported students crying when leaving that meeting.
Bell didn’t return a call Friday for comment on this article.
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, Seamansaid it’s “hogwash” to assume the meeting is off the record.
And situations differ for how reporters should act, he said.
For example, when attending a news conference, reporters generally don’t need to introduce themselves. They have their credentials and were invited and let in because they are approved media members, he said.
“You don’t want tosurreptitiously record anyone,” he said. “But if you have a roomful of people and there’s a recorder … I’m less sympathetic. I’m also less sympathetic when there are meetings with legislators. If you’re doing the work of the people, the people should be able to know what your thoughts are.”
Seaman also said that with so many students in a room there was nothing preventing any of them from going outside the meeting and spreading the information.
“Probably both sides could have handled things better,” he said.
In addition to terminating Helbert, WUTC removed the article from its website.
“After questions of ethics came forward, we could not verify that the story had been gathered in an ethical fashion; thus, I asked to have it taken down,”Heddleston said.
The Society of Professional Journalists discourages outlets from taking down content, Seaman said.
“It’s just not a good practice,” he said.
If there’s a mistake, journalists should own up to it and clarify it, such as with an editor’s note explaining the problems with the story.
“You can’t make things disappear,” he said.
Seaman also said that it’s important for news organizations to be upfront about expectations and that people generally sign agreements outlining those details when they are hired.
“If you want to be a good journalism organization, you need to explain to your employees what you think a good journalist is,” he said.
Timeline of events
The article was originally published on WUTC’s website March 10.
Helbert said she initially got positive feedback from WUTC supervisors on her report, but she soon started getting questions from them about whether she identified herself as a reporter.
On March 17, there was a previously scheduled meeting between state legislators and UTC administrators.
Helbertsaid she felt that it was pressure from lawmakers that led to her termination. She said she thinks lawmakers threatened they could withhold funding from the school or radio station if their concerns weren’t addressed.
“You can’t let lawmakers determine what news coverage you do … It seems like I kicked a wasp’s nest,” Helbertsaid. “It’s the good ol’ boy network. They just throw their weight around.”
Heddlestonsaid that at the March 17 meeting there was an informal mention ofHelbert’s article, but there was no conversation about threatening to pull funding because of the story.
On March 21,Helbert said she met with Heddleston, who notified her she was fired for not following NPR standards of identifying herself.
She said she was only provided with specific NPR guidelines after the incident.