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Lawmakers Complain, Tennessee Chattanooga Fires Reporter

March 27, 2017
 
 

After pushback from Tennessee lawmakers about how a journalist handled herself while reporting on the state’s transgender bathroom access legislation, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fired the journalist, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

The journalist, Jacqui Helbert, worked for WUTC, an NPR affiliate station that receives funding from UTC.

Earlier this month, Helbert was reporting on Tennessee’s “bathroom bill,” which would have required all students in the state, including transgender students, to use restrooms and dressing rooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. The bill failed last week.

As part of the reporting for her story, Helbert went with a group of high school students to the state capital, where they met with state senators about the bill.

At the meeting, Helbert held a 22-inch fuzzy microphone, headphones and other recording equipment in a crowd of 20 or so high school students, but she did not explicitly declare herself a journalist to lawmakers. When her story aired, the lawmakers accused Helbert of failing to abide by journalistic ethics.

“It was glaringly obvious who I was,” said Helbert, who also wore an NPR press pass openly at the event.

Lawmakers, including State Senator Kevin Brooks, said the information shared during the meeting with high schoolers was not intended to be public.

“I don’t recall anyone having recording gear at all, or anyone looking or feeling like a reporter,” Brooks said. “I was meeting with kids. These were young children.”

In a meeting the following week, lawmakers met with UTC officials to discuss a separate matter. However, during this meeting, they discussed concerns about Helbert’s story, noting that UTC receives state funding.

The Times Free Press reported that UTC provided $510,000 to WUTC in 2016.

On Friday, the university released a statement about its decision to terminate Helbert.

“The university's decision to release the employee from the station was based on a violation of journalism ethics,” the statement said. “We believe the news-gathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information. We strive to maintain the faith of our listeners and the community we serve.”

Helbert’s story has since been removed from the WUTC website.

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