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Chattanooga radio reporter fired, blames lawmakers

Jacqui Helbert claims she was holding this mic and wearing these headphones when she went with students to meet lawmakers. (Image: WTVC)

A college radio reporter is fired from her job after she reported a story that drew criticism from Tennessee lawmakers.

Those lawmakers say she didn't identify herself as a journalist.

Jacqui Helbert worked for WUTC, which broadcasts from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus.

Earlier this month, she traveled to Nashville for a story on the Tennessee bathroom bill.

SEE ALSO | State lawmakers respond to ex-WUTC reporter's claims


"Rode up with them, just like embedded. Did interviews with them on the bus," Helbert explained.

Now, Helbert thinks lawmakers included in that story pressured the station to fire her.

Helbert's story included a recording of state Senator Mike Bell, apparently dismissing the sincerity of transgender students.

At one point in her story, he can be heard saying "Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog."

In it, you can also hear Bell say: "My office mate is a doctor who thinks it's all hogwash."

A couple of days after her story aired on WUTC, Helbert says her boss started to ask her questions about the story.

"They're like 'Senator Bell called and complained' then they started asking questions about did I introduce myself and that kind of thing," she said.

Then, Senior Associate Vice Chancellor of UTC's Division of Marketing and Communications George Heddleston fired her.

Heddleston would not answer our questions but did offer a written statement that said:

The university’s decision to release the employee from WUTC was based on a violation of journalism ethics by failing to identify herself as a reporter during a meeting. We believe the newsgathering process must be conducted in a manner that instills trust in the public. Failure to do so undermines journalistic credibility just as much as inaccurate information.

Helbert denies she was misleading.

She says she kept her badge on the entire day.

She says she also carried a large, fuzzy mic and had on a large crossbody bag with WUTC's call letters on it.

I shook his hand, introduced myself with my headphones and my gear, had to fumble with it," Helbert said. "It was extremely obvious that I was press.

NewsChannel 9 reached out to both of the men Helbert met with last week.

As of Sunday, we have not heard back from Representative Kevin Brooks.

Senator Mike Bell referred us to UTC for a comment.

The bathroom bill didn't make it out of the Senate Education Committee last week.

Lawmakers say they expect it to resurface later this session.

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