CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- A reporter for a radio station at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has been fired after state lawmakers complained she failed to disclose her presence during a meeting on a state transgender bathroom bill.
The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports lawmakers said WUTC-FM reporter Jacqui Helbert failed to properly identify herself as a reporter during meetings March 7 between lawmakers and a group of high school students. She worked for WUTC, an affiliate of National Public Radio.
Helbert said she wore a press ID badge to the public meeting at the Capitol, was wearing headphones and carrying bulky radio equipment. She said she never concealed her intentions.
“It was glaringly obvious who I was,” Helbert said.
UTC spokesman George Heddleston said in a statement the university’s decision to fire Helbert was “based on a violation of journalism ethics.”
“We believe the newsgathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public,” the statement said. “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.”
The Cleveland High School students, who met with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, were advocating against the bathroom bill, which later failed to make it out of the Senate Education Committee.
Cleveland High senior Patrick Pyott said Helbert held out a large microphone at the meeting and was clearly a reporter.
“It would be hard to miss her with what she was wearing,” Pyott said.
Brooks said he was never given explicit notification that a reporter was there. He said what he shared with the students was personal and not for the public.
“I don’t recall anyone having recording gear at all, or anyone looking or feeling like a reporter,” Brooks said Friday. “I was meeting with kids.”
Helbert’s story aired March 9 and 13 and was posted on the station’s website.
UTC officials met March 17 with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. Heddleston said Helbert’s story was discussed and at least one lawmaker mentioned the state provides funding to UTC. The university contributed more than $510,000 to the station in 2016.
Helbert was fired last week and the station removed the story from its website.
“If the politicians can threaten to withhold money from the University and control the reporters, it totally discounts having (the) press,” Helbert said.
In a termination letter to Helbert, Heddleston said a review “concluded that you did not identify yourself properly as a journalist.”