Tennessee station reportedly fires journalist after complaints from state lawmakers

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A public radio reporter in Chattanooga, Tenn., was reportedly fired last week after state lawmakers complained that she did not identify herself as a journalist while on assignment at the state capitol.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press and other outlets have reported that WUTC reporter Jacqui Helbert was fired Tuesday. Legislators had complained to officials at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the station’s licensee, that Helbert didn’t identify herself as a journalist during a meeting between two legislators and a group of high-school students. The students, members of a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at their school, were expressing opposition to proposed legislation bill that would require transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender on their birth certificate.

Helbert’s story was later removed from WUTC’s website but is archived, and the audio is still available. Both stories included comments from Republican state Sen. Mike Bell, a supporter of the bill. Bell asked the students how transgender identities are defined, saying, “Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog.” Helbert reported that several students left the meeting with Bell in tears.

After Helbert’s report aired and was posted on WUTC’s website, a state senator told university officials during a meeting that “he had issues with [Helbert’s] journalistic ethics.” A lawmaker also reminded officials of the state’s support for the university, according to a statement by a university official given to the Free Press.

A university spokesperson addressed Helbert’s firing in a Facebook post Friday.

Helbert told the Free Press that “it was glaringly obvious” that she was a journalist during the meeting because she was using conspicuous audio recording equipment and wearing a press pass.

But Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks told the paper, “I don’t recall anyone having recording gear at all, or anyone looking or feeling like a reporter.”

“You can’t let lawmakers determine what news coverage you do,” Helbert told Nooga.com. “… It seems like I kicked a wasp’s nest. It’s the good ol’ boy network. They just throw their weight around.”

WUTC received more than a quarter of its revenue from the state of Tennessee in fiscal year 2015, according to the station’s website.

  • The Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism — founded in 1972 when I was in editing with University at Center for Tomorrow — may leave Ohio State for a new home reports the Columbus Dispatch. OSU’s journalism major merged with School of Communication in 1996, and, later, the prestigious fellowship was carted over to an University Communications staff office.