Talking to the Wrong People  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2003

Talking to the Wrong People   

Salt Lake City journalists learn the hard way about lines that need to be drawn when big, tabloid news hits, and big, tabloid reporters start calling.

By Cheryl Johnston
Cheryl Johnston is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


When teenager Elizabeth Smart disappeared last June, Salt Lake Tribune reporters Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera quickly became their paper's top reporters on the case. As the national spotlight turned to Salt Lake, the two were frequently interviewed on national television. But just 10 days into the kidnapping investigation, Vigh and Cantera agreed to one interview that would come back to haunt them and their newspaper.

When the Tribune reporters took money from the National Enquirer in exchange for inside information--ultimately losing their jobs, forcing out their editor and damaging their paper's credibility--they demonstrated what can happen when big news, particularly big in the tabloid sense, drops into a local paper's backyard. Like Vigh and Cantera, reporters following The Story--be it the kidnapping, the murder, the affair--are faced with almost inevitable, ethics-challenging dilemmas: Do they discuss the stories on TV? Do they talk to the tabloids? And should their sources be warned that the information they are providing may go far beyond the newspaper?

Newsrooms haven't come to a consensus on where reporters should draw the line. Some believe putting print reporters on a television news show is a bad idea. It "opens the door to these kinds of things," says Brian Massey, an assistant professor in the University of Utah's communications department. Yet airtime for reporters can be rewarding for their employers. "It brands the reporter--the journalist--as a commodity that their home media can market," Massey points out.

For the Salt Lake Tribune, all of Cantera and Vigh's exposure hardly outweighed the harm to the newspaper after the Enquirer's story appeared and details of the reporters' arrangement with the tabloid emerged.

In the midst of reporting on the Smart case last summer, the two reporters had dinner with National Enquirer correspondent Alan Butterfield. According to former Tribune Editor James E. "Jay" Shelledy, the reporters accepted $10,000 each from the National Enquirer in exchange for information. They hadn't sought their editors' permission to freelance, as they were required to do, nor did they let any editors know they had shared unpublished information with the Enquirer.

When they realized the arrangement was about to come to light this spring, they confessed to having provided the Enquirer with a "road map" of the investigation. But when the Enquirer presented tapes of their conversations, it became evident that they had given up much more--specific details they had gathered for the Tribune, some of them unpublished. Rather than serving simply as background, the information Cantera and Vigh furnished was the basis of a July 2 Enquirer article titled "Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring." The Tribune later reported that, according to the Smarts' attorney, Cantera had embellished the information.

After 12 years at the helm of the Tribune, Shelledy resigned in the wake of harsh criticism, much of it from his own newsroom, over his handling of the affair.

The Salt Lake debacle is an extreme example of what can go wrong when journalists working on a big story freelance for or are interviewed by other news organizations. Sometimes the case isn't as clear-cut as talking with the National Enquirer.

When TV reporters sought out Vigh and Cantera, Shelledy didn't think it was a bad thing--rather, he saw it as acknowledgment of the Tribune's prowess. In a column disclosing the National Enquirer connection--before he learned the full story--Shelledy said Cantera and Vigh "led the way on the Smart story and were recognized by most outside media as the most knowledgeable in the reportorial litter." Shelledy said in the column, "They logged more air time than some anchors." Vigh and Cantera were interviewed on cable news networks and ABC's "Good Morning America" as well as local TV.

However, Shelledy also attributed Vigh and Cantera's misadventure with the Enquirer to the fact that they had been on TV so much. "The fame, apparently, went to their heads," he says.

"It started that day, the day she was kidnapped. It started that first night," Vigh recalls. "It's flattering to get that kind of calls." However, he disputes the notion that attention gave him illusions of stardom. "I was never all that comfortable with it." Cantera did not return phone calls from AJR.

The Modesto Bee has had ample experience with TV and tabloids, what with their reporters covering two high-profile homicide stories--Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson. Executive Editor Mark Vasché has refused to allow his reporters to discuss the Peterson case on TV. In late April and early May the Bee was receiving up to 10 requests a week for reporters to go on air, according to Vasché.

Vasché developed his no-TV policy during the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit saga. He appeared three times to talk about the case and concluded that news shows too often demand speculation and ask questions "designed to take us beyond what we need to do as journalists."

Despite Vasché's concerns, he permitted his Washington correspondent, Michael Doyle, to discuss the Condit investigation on television as long as he avoided speculating. Doyle had obtained e-mails between Levy and a college friend in which she talked about her "boyfriend" being affiliated with Congress. Once he had those e-mails, Doyle says he was "bombarded" by TV interview requests. And despite his paper's hesitance to put a reporter on the air, Doyle wanted to talk because he had grown frustrated by "reporters not knowing what they were talking about" on TV. "I kept my focus on what I knew based on my reporting," Doyle says.

The San Francisco Chronicle is much more comfortable with TV interviews than the Bee. Managing Editor Robert J. Rosenthal says Chronicle reporters can appear on television "if the story is of high interest to the public and you're presented as a credible, accurate source of information."

Chronicle reporter Henry Lee says when he was interviewed about the Laci Peterson case, he avoided answering questions that called for speculation. "I didn't want to say anything that was not grounded in reporting we had done," he says.

His colleague, Chronicle Washington Bureau Chief Marc Sandalow, says being interviewed on cable news channels has paid reporting dividends for him. "Just being on TV makes a source talk to you more often," he says. The more you're on TV, "the more likely your phone calls are to be returned."

It's one thing for papers to ban reporters from appearing on the air, but it's a lot trickier to regulate their conversations with other journalists, especially if reporters believe they can learn something new about a big story. "I don't know that I have the right to say you can't have a conversation with the Enquirer," Shelledy says, adding that giving information is a different story.

Tribune Publisher William Dean Singleton says it wasn't talking to the Enquirer that got the reporters fired. Rather, the "breach of ethics is taking the info they gathered while on our payroll" and selling it "without permission of their editors," he says.

While investigating a possible Condit connection to Levy's disappearance, Doyle was approached by tabloid reporters a half-dozen times. "When they called me, I tried to get a hand on hints and tips that they had that I didn't." He remembers being "very careful" about what he said. Doyle recollects that once a tabloid reporter offered to "pay for assistance," to which he responded that the tabloid reporter couldn't talk like that to him again.

Vasché says the tabloids have contacted a number of his staffers in connection with the Laci Peterson story. He says the reporters know not to share information.

According to David Perel, the Enquirer's editor in chief, his reporters decide on a case-by-case basis whether to contact local journalists on a breaking story, and that they "don't really keep a scorecard" of how often they are rebuffed. He says his reporters "knock on some doors, people open, knock on others, people don't open."

Aside from tarnishing their newspaper's reputation and blowing up their careers, Cantera and Vigh also betrayed the trust and confidentiality of sources who had spoken to them as Tribune reporters--not as reporters for the National Enquirer.

Shelledy says when the two first informed him of their situation, they offered to resign and said they would identify their sources and turn over their notes to the Smart family in order to avoid a lawsuit. Shelledy didn't want the sources to be compromised. "We had Tribune sources that we had given anonymity to, and they were going to roll them," Shelledy says.

And they did, the day they were fired. The Tribune on May 3 reported that Cantera and Vigh turned over to the Smart family the identity of sources in the Salt Lake police department, the FBI, the Utah Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Secret Service. The sources were their background not only for parts of the Enquirer story, but for as many as a dozen Tribune stories.

"We have to live with this reputation now," says Shelledy, "that all you have to do is sue us and we'll turn over sources."

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