Ever heard of the Streisand Effect? In a nutshell, it is when an attempt to suppress, hide or censor a piece of information inadvertently results in that information becoming widely known. It was coined in 2005, two years after Barbara Streisand sued a photographer for including photos of her Malibu home in an online catalogue about the Californian coastline.
Of course, it backfired and drew more attention to her fabulous home.
Reporter (and good friend) Jacqui Helbert pointed out this phenomenon to me after she was recently fired from her position at the University of Tennessee, WUTC radio station. In short, Helbert was fired for not identifying herself as a reporter, while she recorded an interview between members of the newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance (from Cleveland High School) with State Senator Mike Bell and later Rep. Kevin Brooks. The young teenagers were in the Capitol to discuss the controversial Bathroom Bill.
However, according to UTC spokesperson, George Heddleston, to not clearly identify yourself is against the code of ethics of this NPR affiliate station, WUTC.
Just clarify, Helbert didn’t sneak into the room where these meetings were being held and secretly set up microphones. She was wearing her cumbersome gear (earphones, 14 inch Shotgun mic and recording device) plainly in view on her body, a WUTC tote bag and her press badge around her neck. She evens says she had to move her gear aside to shake hands with Senator Bell. Now what she perhaps failed to do when shaking hands, was say “I’m Jacqui Helbert, reporter with WUTC and I will be recording this interview.” It feels slightly pedantic and reductive but unfortunately all media personnel need to be on their game, especially in this day and age when everything we do has the propensity to receive a backlash.
So let us just say she didn’t properly identify herself but again wasn’t sneaky about the fact that she was recording the conversations. I would say that’s a rookie mistake and warrants a slap on the wrist – a verbal warning. Perhaps a written one due to the high profile nature of the interview. But that’s it. You live and learn. And you move on.
Why then go all the way and fire her? Why create your Streisand Effect when you know a tenacious, dedicated reporter such as Helbert will not take this unfair dismissal lying down?
Peer pressure. Oh and money, although UTC is denying that the legislators threatened to cut their funding unless Helbert was fired.
If you haven’t heard the piece, it’s a worth a listen.
Not to give you spoilers but you’ll definitely want to hear the part where Senator Mike Bell dismisses the existence of Transgender people as “hogwash”.
“Is it how I feel on Monday? I feel different on Tuesday? Wednesday I might feel like a dog.”
There’s no denying that the media have quite a significant role to play in public reporting. In the days of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ it is essential that we report with accuracy, objectivity and truthfulness. That we uphold higher standards of ourselves and our work. However, when that happens, who protects us? When the bully can come in to the school yard, lean on you until you give him your lunch money and use his fists to ensure you don’t tell anyone, how can honest media survive?
Or perhaps more significantly, how can small media outlets survive? When you’re relying on government funding for your existence, being impartial is simply an ‘alternative fact’. A baseless one, which reveals its truth when you step on some power that be’s toes. Though UTC claims this is about ethics and not bathroom bills, you have to wonder if the topic was a little less controversial would Helbert have been fired? Thankfully the Streisand Effect has carved a path for proper exposure to the issues legislators want hidden. And that’s when traction starts gaining behind stories like this. Small radio stations can’t be bullied simply because those in power don’t like to hear the stories they report.
Interestingly, NPR have released a statement vindicating Helbert and arguing that the WUTC station should have been allowed to make a decision on how to handle this situation. And not be pressured or threatened with funding cuts. Clearly, it’s important that stations support each other and their journalists. NPR’s statement demonstrates how the big brother can protect its sibling. Nevertheless, and not to take from their statement, but it is just words. We need more than just words if we’re going to protect those that seek to report on topics that many, many would rather see go away.