The University of Tennessee Chattanooga has said the decision to terminate the employment of reporter Jacqui Helbert was made by university officials, not the news editors at WUTC. The station's news staff says the decision to remove from WUTC's website the story that Helbert had done about meetings held by state legislators with students from a Gay-Straight Alliance Club was also made by university officials, not WUTC's editors. (That story has been archived here.)
Serious questions have been raised about whether university officials were pressured to take those actions by state lawmakers — who could cut state funding to the school and WUTC.
In both cases we at NPR believe the decisions should have been left to the journalists in charge. Taking the decisions about enforcing ethics out of their hands did more to undermine the station's credibility than the original infraction.
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.
To be sure, Helbert should have said explicitly to the legislators that she was there to report a story for WUTC. That said, the fact that she was wearing press credentials and was holding a 14-inch long microphone that she moved around as people spoke would be obvious signs to any public officials that they were being recorded — most likely for some type of public posting.
Her mistake was not, her editors say, a firing offense. Instead, it was a learning moment for a new reporter and she was counseled about her mistake. Her editors did not view the story as fatally flawed — she had not hidden her equipment or misled anyone. They say they would not have removed it from WUTC's website if they had not been ordered to do so. Removing a story – except in the most extreme circumstances — is a breach of the standards practiced by NPR and other credible news organizations.
We at NPR agree with the editors' thinking. They should have been allowed to handle the situation as they – the journalists – felt was right. We strongly urge the university and WUTC to reach an agreement that ensures the station's editorial independence in the future.