Suzanne Dean, Messenger publisher

Text of remarks prepared by Suzanne Dean, publisher of the Sanpete Messenger, for delivery to the Ephraim City Council, Aug. 16, 2017. The remarks were a response to criticism from Councilman John Scott, who, in a council meeting, called the Messenger’s reporting of the Ephraim police controversy unethical and full of half-truths.

 

You all know me. I’m Suzanne Dean, and I’ve owned and been publisher of the Sanpete Messenger for 17 years. During that time, I’ve had mayors, city managers and member of city councils bring me flowers when I’ve taken tough stands in support of cities.

Two weeks ago was the first time a council member blasted our newspaper, and by inference, me, in an open city council meeting.

Councilman Scott, I want you to know I respect you. When I’ve covered the council, I’ve quoted you more than most council members because I’ve felt you’ve had good things to say.

I also respect your right to say anything you want in a city council meeting. A government forum like this has a high level of First Amendment protection, just as our newspaper does when covering public issues. But I think your comments two weeks ago were just plain wrong.

The situation reminds me of a case a few years ago. A recently released LDS stake president in one of the six stakes in our county was charged in another county with sexual harassment of a female employee. When the word got out, we received tips that this man had been harassing female employees for years. Finally, one woman took a stand and reported it.

When we ran a short story at the bottom of page one, H-E-double-toothpick broke out. As we were dealing with the fallout, I had a conversation one of our recent mayors of Ephraim. He said, “It’s not that it didn’t happen. They just didn’t want anybody to know about it.”

Councilman Scott, let me answer a few of your points specifically:

 

You said much of our coverage was untrue.

We have carried 12 staff-produced items about what I’m going to call the police controversy. We have also run five letters to the editor. All of our stories were based on public documents and interviews, and most of the interviews were tape recorded.

To date, two errors have come to my attention. In one story, we stated that Brant Hansen had expressed concerns to the Utah County investigators about former officer Darren Pead’s inquiries to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification ( BCI).

We said Brant expressed concerns at the beginning of the investigation. Brant let us know that he had mentioned them during the course of the investigation.

The Utah County report said that at the time of their report, there were 272 incomplete police reports in the total reporting system, and 237 of the reports were Chief Rasmussen’s.

In one instance, we got the numbers mixed up and said Chief Rasmussen had 272 incomplete reports. But in several other references, we correctly stated the chief’s number as 237.

I personally wrote or edited every story, and I can tell you that our stories were accurate and balance reports, based on the materials we were able to obtain. I would be willing to testify, under oath, in a court of law, that everything we published was the truth insofar we were able to determine truth.

 

You said much of our coverage was slanted.


I started to do an accounting of the number of column inches we have run giving the officers’ side, the city’s viewpoint, and neutral information, such as how the city was going to be policed until new officers could be hired.

I didn’t finish that tabulation before I had to leave for this meeting, but I will email it to each of you. I’m very confident that the totals for the two sides of this will be very close.

You might be interested to know that the week after the case went public, we received two letters to the editor supporting the officers and criticizing the chief and the city. We proactively reached out and asked the chief if one of his supporters would like to submit a letter. A letter supporting the chief was submitted after deadline…and we ran it in top position.

Last week, I did a fairly in-depth report and analysis of the Utah County report. I wrote 1,000 words that tended to support the officers’ assertions and 1,400 words supporting the chief.

I could cite other anecdotes that show we have gone to a lot of effort to give all sides of this thing.

 

You said we had alleged there had been a cover-up

We did report allegations by a complainant that her case had been covered up, and, in fact, in response to those allegations, we quoted the city manager as saying her case had been reopened.

One of our stories did include a direct and accurate quote from the police officers’ resignation letter saying Ephraim was covering up what had been going on in the Police Department.

But the Messenger as a newspaper never alleged a cover-up of any kind. Quite the contrary, we were extremely pleased, with the city’s transparency in responding to the whole case.

Both the mayor and city manager returned our calls and answered our questions. With the help of Leigh Ann Warnock, the city responded very promptly to our GRAMA requests for documents. And we received the written Utah County report with very little redaction.

Your staff did a first-rate job of media relations.

 

You said our stories were full of vitriol

On that one, you’re going to have to point to the specific instances. We realized that because of the people involved, this was a sensitive situation. We went overboard to be measured in the way we talked about it.

The only thing I can think of that comes anywhere close to vitriol is the police resignation letter, which we had a duty to report, and which we quoted and paraphrased accurately.

 

You said we violated journalism ethics, and you knew that because you attended the Edward R. Murrow School of Journalism at Washington State University.

I don’t want to get into dueling journalism schools, but I have a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which is almost universally regarded as tops in the county. I’ve worked at four newspapers besides the Messenger and taught journalism full-time at two universities.

I know all the points in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. I live and breathe that code every day. There was nothing in any of our coverage that violated the Code of Ethics.

We used unidentified sources in one story out of the 12. In all other stories, all our material was attributed. I did everything I could to get the sources of the one story to go on the record. They said for legal and professional reasons, they could not be named.

I felt their perspective and the facts they cited…and they showed me documentation for those facts… needed to be presented to the public. So in this one instance, I made the judgment that use of unnamed sources was acceptable and fit within the \Code of Ethics.

I would estimate we have used unnamed sources in controversial stories less than half a dozen times total in the 17 years I’ve published the paper.

 

I’ve told the truth

Finally, I just want to say that 50 years ago, there was no professional organization of journalists in the United States. There was only a fraternity, called Sigma Delta Chi, and women were not admitted to that fraternity.

Forty-seven years ago, when I was a junior majoring in journalism at the University of Utah, Sigma Delta Chi started admitting women for the first time—and I was inducted.

I went through a ceremony where I was presented with objects symbolizing the values of my profession. At the end, I had to raise my hand and swear to tell the truth in print for the rest of my professional life.

Truth is not always easy to decipher. It is not a given in any interaction. But I can tell you I have kept that oath. I kept it as our newspaper covered the police controversy…and I intend to continue to honor it as long as I am publisher of the newspaper.