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Editor column: Tribune takes seriously its role in Swallow's resignation

Published November 22, 2013 9:46 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah Attorney General John Swallow called Thursday a "somber day" as he announced his resignation, and those of us who work at The Salt Lake Tribune agree with that characterization.

There's no cause for celebration when an elected leader falls.

Utah voters elected Swallow decisively to the state's top law enforcement job.

It's a serious matter whenever a news organization's reporting calls into question the fitness of a person elected by the people to serve.

Not once since The Tribune on Jan. 12 first reported allegations against Swallow have we ever regarded the story as anything but grave.

The four distinct investigations into Swallow's actions all stem from that first Tribune story — perhaps the most challenging piece of journalism in which I have ever been involved.

Indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson, arguably a source with ulterior motives, made the first allegations against Swallow in off-the-record conversations with reporter Tom Harvey, and they were stunning: He alleged Swallow had helped broker a deal Johnson believed would funnel money to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end a federal investigation of Johnson's company.

Beyond the fact that the conversations were off the record, no good journalist would ever take a source such as Johnson at his word.

Those initial conversations with Johnson led Harvey and reporter Robert Gehrke to spend literally months pursuing documentation and interviewing sources who might be able to corroborate what Johnson alleged.

Only when the pair and a team of editors felt certain their reporting was accurate and well-documented — and Johnson agreed to go on the record after a plea deal in his case fell apart — did we publish the story after scrutinizing every word.

We have treated every story since with similar care.

Swallow at one point during Thursday's news conference said that "the tough reality is that 50 front-page stories no matter how baseless can take anyone apart."

The Tribune has published nothing that was not well-sourced and well-documented. Before we launched any story in which unnamed sources were used, we applied our standard, which requires that we have at least two such sources with firsthand knowledge.

Each time we've written about Swallow, he or his attorney has had an opportunity to respond. When we've made a mistake, we've corrected it.

Ultimately, readers must decide whether we've done our job — whether we've fulfilled our watchdog role in our democracy.

We recognize the power good journalism has to effect change and to alter the lives of individuals.

With that power comes enormous responsibility to be thorough, accurate and fair.

We've approached each Swallow story with that in mind and believe we've been responsible — and never cavalier.

So, yes, Thursday was a somber day for Swallow, for us and for all Utahns.

Lisa Carricaburu is managing editor. She can be reached at lisac@sltrib.com or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu.