NPR chides Tennessee university over firing of public radio reporter

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NPR issued a statement Monday questioning the firing of a reporter at public radio station WUTC in Chattanooga, Tenn. and calling for stronger safeguards for the station’s editorial independence from its university licensee.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga reportedly fired WUTC reporter Jacqui Helbert last week after state legislators complained to university officials that Helbert had not identified herself as a journalist during meetings at the capitol. Helbert was carrying audio equipment and wearing a press pass, however.

Helbert’s story, which has since been removed from WUTC’s website, included candid remarks by legislators discussing a bathroom bill that would affect transgender high-school students. The article was removed from WUTC’s website but is archived, and the audio is available.

In firing Helbert, the university overreached, said Michael Oreskes, NPR’s SVP of news, and Mark Memmott, supervising senior editor for standards and practices.

“In both cases we at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge,” Oreskes and Memmott said in the statement. “Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station’s credibility than the original infraction.”

Because station news staffers didn’t believe Helbert deserved to be fired, Oreskes and Memmott urged the university and WUTC to “reach an agreement that ensures the station’s editorial independence in the future.”

“This chain of events underscores why it is critical that newsrooms such as that at WUTC not be subject to pressure from the institutions that hold their licenses, the sponsors who give them financial support or the politicians who sometimes don’t like the stories they hear or read,” Oreskes and Memmott wrote.

  • Paul Cook

    No wonder the public is confused. Time and time again we are told (lectured) that NPR and member stations are SEPARATE organizations. They are not the same even though they co-brand much of the time.

    Yet here we have NPR opining on a member station’s personnel activity. Confusing.

    Is NPR separate from the member stations? Yes the code of ethics should apply to all, but what business does NPR have in another organization’s HR calls?

  • Paul Cook

    Several years ago, NPR management was mostly silent on Ari Shapiro’s spouse working at the White House, while Ari was covering the WH. It’s good to see their ethical concerns have returned albeit to a group they have no say about.

    • Brad Deltan

      You mean like this? Or how they deftly handled Michelle Norris’ husband’s work in the Obama administration.

      • Paul Cook

        Here is what the NPR ethics handbook says:
        “To secure the public’s trust, we must make it clear that our primary allegiance is to the public. Any personal or professional interests that conflict with that allegiance, whether in appearance or in reality, risk compromising our credibility. We are vigilant in disclosing to both our supervisors and the public any circumstances where our loyalties may be divided – extending to the interests of spouses and other family members – and when necessary, we recuse ourselves from related coverage.
        Shapiro did NOT disclose the conflict at the time.