3 warnings for news departments from the WUTC incident

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This commentary was first posted on the author’s blog and is republished here with permission.

For the second time in as many months, I find myself writing about the firing of a public media journalist over matters related to journalistic integrity.

Last month, it was Marketplace reporter Lewis Wallace. This time it’s Jacqui Helbert, fired from WUTC in Chattanooga after state lawmakers complained to the station’s license-holder, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, about one of her stories.

The lawmakers said Helbert hadn’t properly identified herself as a journalist in meetings they’d held with high school students about a proposed transgender bathroom bill. They said they were unaware the meetings were being recorded for broadcast, although multiple accounts suggest Helbert was wearing press credentials and carrying conspicuous recording gear.

One of the lawmakers complained to a state senator who represents the station’s Chattanooga district. That lawmaker raised the issue with officials at the state-funded university. A few days later, Helbert was fired for what a UTC marketing official called “a violation of journalism ethics.”

There are many troubling things about this incident, but it can and should be a learning experience for public media stations — particularly those licensed to universities, school districts, government agencies, and other entities with agendas that can easily clash with the mission of a news organization.

Here are three key takeaways from this cautionary tale:

1. Get out of your license-holder’s PR department.

It appears the decision to fire Helbert was made by university officials, not by WUTC management. The public statement about her dismissal came not from her news director or station manager but from the “senior associate vice chancellor, UTC Division of Marketing and Communication.”

Journalists being hired and fired by PR people? Now that’s a breach of ethics.

NPR’s top news and ethics editors, Michael Oreskes and Mark Memmott, agreed in a statement issued Monday about the incident. “Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of [WUTC editors’] hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction,” they wrote.

It’s not unusual for university-licensed public media organizations to be governed by their institutions’ marketing departments, or for a station manager to report directly to a university’s communications chief.

This organizational structure is a holdover from a time when local public stations did little in the way of journalism, but times have changed, and this structure is no longer acceptable.

Not all university stations are set up this way:

      • WUNC is run by an LLC, classified as an “affiliated entity” of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
      • WFIU/WTIU reports to the Provost (the chief academic officer) at Indiana University.
      • WKSU is housed in the University Relations department of Kent State University, which also houses the marketing division, but the two entities are separate.

All of these options are more journalistically palatable than the news-organization-as-marketing-subsidiary model.

2. Codify the firewall.

A troubling number of stations lack written statements of editorial independence from their license holders.

When I ask journalists at these stations about their firewalls, I often get answers like:

“We’ve never had a problem. Hopefully the university (or school district, state agency, etc.) will keep behaving itself.”

“Oh, no need to worry about that — the university president completely understands journalism.”

“We just hope nothing really bad happens with the institution because we don’t want to have to step into that hornet’s nest.”

Much like a government of laws not of men, the firewall should be guaranteed by written documents, not by crossed fingers or a precarious faith in institutional officials who could be gone tomorrow.

3. Don’t assume your staff knows about ethics.

Unless there’s a lot more to this story than what’s become public, Helbert’s firing was a major overreaction. But it’s true that she did not employ the highest standards of journalistic integrity. She should have identified herself and her news outlet to participants in the meetings and explained that she was recording their comments for broadcast. Carrying recording equipment and wearing credentials wasn’t enough.

Whether or not the gatherings were subject to public meetings laws, it’s better to err on the side of transparency, especially if there could have been a reasonable expectation that the discussions were off the record.

NPR’s ethics handbook states, “Journalism should be done in plain sight, and our standards are clear. When we are working, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists to those we interview and interact with.”

Helbert now knows she made a mistake, she told a Nashville news outlet. But she also said she’d never seen the NPR Ethics Handbook before the incident, even though this was her first job in journalism. If that’s the case, she was set up to fail. Unfortunately for her, the lack of an adequate firewall meant that failure cost her her job.

It’s not enough to require new hires to sign a form saying they’ve read the station’s ethics policy. News managers should point out key principles in the policy and ensure that the policy is a living document in their newsrooms. They must talk about its tenets regularly, leading and encouraging discussions of ethical dilemmas — not just with journalists but with all station staff. Nobody is born knowing this stuff.

I can only imagine the pain this incident has caused for Helbert, who was just starting her career in journalism, and for her editors and managers, whose authority was undermined by the university.

There can be a silver lining, however, if this situation leads to a system-wide discussion — and then a much-needed overhaul — of the relationships between stations and their license-holders.

Judith Smelser is the founder of Smelser Editing & Consulting, which provides consulting, training and independent story editing for public media newsrooms around the country. She also writes Scribbles and Scruples, a blog about issues in public media and the craft of journalism. Smelser is a former managing editor at Colorado Public Radio and former news director at WMFE in Orlando, Fla.

  • Mike Savage

    “It appears the decision to fire Helbert was made by university officials, not by WUTC management. The public statement about her dismissal came not from her news director or station manager but from the “senior associate vice chancellor, UTC Division of Marketing and Communication.”

    It’s important to note that Chuck Cantrell, WUTC station manager is also the senior associate vice chancellor, UTC Division of Marketing and Communication. He assumed the role after the last station manager retired. So there’s no way to stop the administration on this one because there is no firewall.

    • Brad Deltan

      That’s an excellent point Mike…thanks for pointing that out.

      It’s not really mentioned here, but it was written elsewhere that WUTC made a commitment to “real news” only about 18 months ago. Supposedly, prior to that they were mostly a national content repeater with fluff stories here and there…in part because they were afraid of exactly this problem: powerful people being offended by their coverage.

      Now this does beg the question: was it *Cantrell’s* strategic decision to move WUTC more in a “hard news” direction? If so, it certainly raises a whole lot of questions.

  • Mark Pugnar

    Would it ever be appropriate to go undercover to research a news story? How should reporters act when investigation is needed?

    • Adam Ragusea

      Most journalism ethics codes say that undercover reporting is ethical only when two conditions are met: 1) The story is really important, not just interesting or titillating; 2) Going undercover is the only way to get it. In other words, concealing your recording device or being less than forthright about your identity and purpose is only OK as a last resort to uncover something the public really needs to know about. A recent example would be Shane Bauer’s story for Mother Jones for which he worked as a guard for Corrections Corporation of America for four months and documented all manner of crime and abuse that was absent from the official records.

  • Mirror16

    Between the upcoming end of federal funding for NPR and this ridiculous firing of a reporter at the behest of UTC that will severely reduce local donations from a largely Liberal audience, WUTC is likely finished.

    • MarkJeffries

      And what do you want in its place? Another Bible-thumper or an iHeart-owned station playing soft rock favorites of the 80s, 90s and today? Or yet another right-wing talk station appealing to an audience between 65 and death? Do you even live in Chattanooga?

  • Brad Deltan

    Oh boy. S**t just got real for WUTC: Helbert filed a lawsuit seeking $1mil in damages as well as reinstatement. In addition to UTC as a whole, Cantrell is named personally as one of the defendants.

    http://www.nashvillescene.com/news/pith-in-the-wind/article/20856772/fired-public-radio-reporter-suing-utc-over-firing

    Note that the Nashville Scene reporter gets into a very testy exchange with TN State Senator Gardenhire, who they have on record as saying Helbert “dug her own grave, and UTC [officials] are the ones that make the policy.” And then he repeated refused to give a yes/no answer if he threatened university funding if she wasn’t fired…which of course makes it quite clear to everyone reading that he did indeed do just that.

    Another industry-watcher’s blog indicates things are going badly for WUTC as a result of this, too:

    https://acrnewsfeed.blogspot.com/2017/04/fired-wutc-reporter-files-lawsuit.html

    “According to posts on a popular public radio discussion list, the incident has already been costly for WUTC. One post said: “We’ve gotten a glut of angry phone calls and emails from listeners cancelling their sustaining membership, and the incident has damaged the station’s credibility as an independent news outlet.” “We’ve postponed our pledge drive, which was scheduled for April 17.””

    Now here’s the real question: how long can NPR stay out of this? It’s escalating fast and their statement before was appropriate when things were just simmering…not when the pot is boiling over. Pretty soon this scandal is going to start tainting NPR’s greater credibility, too.