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NBC Can Fire Employee For Reporting Journalistic Ethics Violations

A news organization can fire an employee even if the termination is based upon the employee reporting journalistic ethics violations, the Seventh Circuit has found.

The appellate court affirmed a trial court decision that an employee can be terminated for reporting to her superiors and declining to produce a program that she said failed to live up to NBC Universal’s own ethical standards recognized by the profession of journalism and imposed by NBC’s internal guidelines.

Marsha Bartel, a journalist working for NBC for 21 years, was terminated as part of what the company said was a program of lay-offs because of general economic conditions. She sued, contending in part that the termination was a result of her raising ethical concerns about a program she was producing. Ms. Bartel was the sole producer of a segment entitled “To Catch a Predator” on NBC’s Dateline television program.

She said part of her job was to ensure compliance with the ethical standards of journalism and NBC’s internal guidelines. She alleged that NBC was providing compensation directly or indirectly to the law enforcement officers participating in the “stings” depicted on the show. The “stings” used agents pretending to be minors to lure adult men into chat rooms, arrange a date, and then meet a minor. When the man arrived at the meeting place, he was arrested while the confrontation was filmed.

Ms. Bartel also objected that Dateline was staging the arrests in a way that maximized the humiliation of the target. Ms. Bartel informed her superiors at NBC of the problems, but she said they took no steps to cure them. She then told her supervisors that she could no longer produce the segment. Shortly thereafter, she was notified of her termination. In her lawsuit, she argued that she was terminated as a result of her objections and that such a termination “is just as impermissible as something like a racially discriminatory motive.

“Both the trial court and appellate court disagreed. The appellate court found that while rules for employment-at-will can protect an associate at a law firm who turns in a partner for ethical violations, there is no such rule for journalists. Thus, even assuming that Ms. Bartel could “prove that the reason NBC offered for the lay-off was pretextual,” there still is no cause of action.

Bartel v. NBC Universal, Inc., 7th Cir. No. 07-3913, issued September 11, 2008.