Making a Case for Editorial Independence

Jun 24, 2017

Jacqui Helbert was a reporter for WUTC in Chattanooga, Tennessee last March when she embedded with a high school gay-straight alliance. The students were travelling to their state legislature to speak to their representatives about an anti-transgender bathroom bill. Some of those representatives, according to Helbert, were “less than nice.” While there, Republican Sen. Mike Bell questioned the idea of transgendered people, calling it “hogwash.” This caused some of the students to cry. They had more luck with GOP Rep. Kevin Brooks, who went so far as to say that he probably wouldn’t vote for the bill.

While the success of the students’ trip was mixed, Helbert’s story afterwards decidedly wasn’t. Her story generated a great deal of traffic on WUTC’s website, with many listeners and readers expressing outrage at Sen. Bell’s behavior. Helbert then received an email from her supervisors that told her she should have verbally identified herself as a reporter, and that her clearly-displayed press pass was not sufficient. Not long afterward, she was fired.

Helbert’s story helped kick off day two of PRNDI’s 2017 conference, and led to a discussion on how newsrooms can handle conflicts with their stations’ license holder. Helbert was fired after a number of lawmakers went to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, which owns WUTC, and threatened to withhold funding if she was not let go.

Helbert was joined on the panel by Terence Shepherd, the news director of WLRN, Vincent Duffy, the news director of Michigan Public Radio, and Judith Smelser, the founder of Smelser Editing and Consulting. PRNDI’s president, Terry Gildea, moderated the discussion, which often had news directors in the audience chiming in with their own stories about how a license holder tried to influence editorial decisions in the newsroom.

“I just feel like NPR and its stations working together have worked so hard and come so far to build this network of high quality journalism, and this big ethical piece of the puzzle has been left out so far,” said Smelser.

Speaking of his own station’s interactions with the Miami-Dade County Public School District, Shepherd told a story of another way in which reporting can be influenced by a licence holder. The school district’s proposed operating agreement with WLRN stated that the station “will serve the communications goals and methods of the district.” This led to questions of conflicts of interest when WLRN featured negative reports concerning schools in the area. They even experienced pushback on a story written by one of the station’s interns on school lunches that don’t taste good.

“It sounds like Venezuela,” said Shepherd.

To Smelser, the cloud of license holders interfering in public radio journalism has brought to light some teachable moments. The key piece of advice she offered was for stations to confirm they have a codified statement of editorial independence that has been approved by the license holder.

“The silver lining is [the panellist’s stories] have brought this issue into the spotlight. We’re all here talking about it right now.” said Smelser. “I think this is a really important moment.”