SALT LAKE CITY: The Salt Lake Tribune held little back last week in explaining to its readers a journalistic scandal that cost two reporters their jobs after they sold misinformation about the Elizabeth Smart case to a supermarket tabloid.
Though its editors did not return calls seeking comment, the newspaper's communications strategy was clear from a trio of statements it released after the reporters were dismissed. The statements - one made by the publisher at a newspaper-industry conference, one written by an editor that ran in The Tribune, and another by a group of reporters - reflected an effort to lay bare not only the facts of the ethical imbroglio, but also of internal disputes over how it was handled in the days after the facts came to light.
The publisher, William Dean Singleton, said, "I felt like I was going to vomit" after he heard the facts. The editor, James Shelledy, defended his slowness in firing the two writers, who each received $20,000 from The National Enquirer for an incorrect tip about members of the Smart family partaking in homosexual exploits. The group of reporters, in an unusual dissent from the editorial chain of command, criticized that delay.
And the composite portrait was a peek into a workplace in disarray, and coming to grips with a major scandal.
"It seems transparent, and I think that's good," said Gary Hill, chairman of the Society for Professional Journalists' ethics committee. He praised the reporters' statement, saying, "There's a hunger there for higher standards."
In his statement, Singleton spoke of having to regain the public's trust. While he didn't spell out what this means, Bruce Whitehead, president of WS Adamson & Associates, a Salt Lake City PR firm, said it would certainly be possible.
"This is a pretty forgiving place," he said. "I don't think The Tribune will suffer a loss of credibility. It has a good reputation."