To tell or not to tell

By: Joe Strupp

Texas reporter takes concerns public, loses job

When reporter Chelsea Jackson disagreed with her publisher at the Marlin (Tex.) Democrat about coverage of the local school district, she wasn’t content to just spout her opposition within the newsroom walls.
Believing her complaints of ethics problems at the rural weekly newspaper fell on deaf ears there, Jackson went to a TV station in nearby Waco, which chronicled her allegations that the paper was ignoring important issues and allowing school district officials to influence stories.
After the first TV story ran, Jackson says she was demoted. When she appeared on TV again, the newspaper fired her.
“I asked her not to speak to the TV media, and my request was ignored,” says publisher Lois Cooper, who has run the 3,200-weekly-circulation paper since February. “I take this place as sacred as a doctor’s office. It doesn’t need to be publicly proclaimed on TV.”
But Jackson, 23, says she believed the newspaper’s actions were ethically wrong. “I have to live with myself and do what’s right,” says Jackson, who is a community college student and mother of two toddlers.
Jackson’s situation raises a common ethical question among journalists: When does a reporter have the right to challenge a publisher’s news judgment, and what are the consequences?
“A community has the right to know how a newspaper is treating its employees,” says Bob Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin. “But the newspaper has a right to fire her.”
Keith Woods, a media ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., agrees. “Journalists must police journalism,” he says. “But it is very odd for a reporter to go to the competition and complain about their newspaper.”
Jackson says she first confronted Cooper late last spring with two objections related to the newspaper’s coverage. The first, she says, was a decision by Cooper to allow a school-district official to edit parts of a news story. The second involved a Cooper directive for Jackson to stop investigating school board member spending practices.
“She told me I couldn’t do it because the school district could sue the newspaper,” Jackson says about the district spending issue. “It irritated me.”
Cooper says she simply believed that Jackson was wasting her time. “I felt that there were other things going on,” she says.
That’s when Jackson approached KWTX-TV in Waco, which broadcast a story June 9 about Jackson’s allegations concerning ethical problems and school board coverage. The story ran while Jackson remained employed at the newspaper.
Following the broadcast, Jackson was taken off the school board beat and began covering other assignments, including the social calendar.
Two days after the first story was aired, KWTX broadcast a second story about Jackson’s reassignment on June 11. On June 16, she was fired.
Cooper says Jackson’s firing had more to do with her poor performance than any ethical disagreements. “Some of her things were not written up to par,” Cooper says.
Jackson remains unemployed, but says she is involved in the development of a new weekly newspaper in Marlin. She also says she has had little success getting an attorney to help her file a wrongful-termination suit against her old paper.
Despite the difficulties, she is proud of what she did and plans to remain in journalism in some form, maybe in another state. “Regardless of what happened, I did what was right, and that’s important,” she says.
(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 21, 1999) [Caption]

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