Editor's column: Utah A.G. story was held until it met ethical standards
It is not unusual to be second-guessed when you break a big news story. Indeed we often second-guess ourselves. And then we are usually our own most severe critic.
We didn't hear much criticism from within the newsroom about our story "A.G. tied to alleged scheme," because anyone connected to it knew how long and how hard we had worked it. The story explored claims by indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson that new Utah Attorney General John Swallow was helping him seek Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid's assistance in quashing a federal investigation. It was well-reported, well-written and well-edited and months in the making.
We heard a few questions about the timing of the story from outside, though with criticism implied. It was a troubling suggestion that we sat on the story until after the election.
We did not.
The questioning, by the way, came from a couple of people with a political stake in the story's telling.
The simple truth is we didn't have the story nailed until last week. We had an off-the-record story told to us by an individual who had been indicted for fraud and who was making accusations about the state's top law enforcement officer. We tried to get reliable confirmation from other sources but couldn't.
We followed rumors, chased down tips, but none proved worthy. As a matter of fact, the leads we could find all could be traced back to the same source the indicted Jeremy Johnson. And he refused to go public until his plea hearing. People from the business community and politics may have been talking about it, but none would go on the record or offer proof.
It would have been irresponsible to publish without confirmation.
We need more than rumor and innuendo to run a story. And we need more than one source particularly on a story with so many ramifications and so much potential fallout.
Two of our best reporters worked the story, Tom Harvey from the business team and Robert Gehrke from the government and politics team. And our editing team numbered no fewer than five top editors.
Over the weeks from just days before the election and continuing until the Johnson plea hearing Harvey was gradually able to view most of what Johnson had compiled as proof of his accusations. Harvey practiced good, old-fashioned reporting techniques. He worked with his source and built a professional relationship that resulted in some level of trust. In the presence of Johnson's lawyer, Harvey got access to scores of emails and other documents.
He also found another independent and reliable source to confirm some of what he had already pieced together from Johnson's documentation.
Johnson had promised to hand over copies of his documents with the successful completion of the plea deal, but did not when it fell through. Obviously we wanted those documents, but by then, even without them, Harvey was able to build on what he'd seen and given us what we needed to tell this story that was very much in the public's best interest to publish.
In the days since we published the original story, both Harvey and Gehrke have done solid follow-up reporting to give readers a breadth of information about the controversy surrounding the principals in this tale, their behavior, their companies and anything else we find and can confirm that is the public's right to know.
I am not saying we do everything right all the time. We don't. Some days we make better decisions than other days. Like everyone else, we make mistakes. When we do, we own up to them, correct them and set the record straight.
We gave this story the care it required. We did our homework and made every effort to be fair and balanced. And we published the story as soon as it met our journalistic standards for publication.
Nancy Conway is the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.
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