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Tabloid Retracts Smart Story

Tabloid Retracts Smart Story

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Two reporters for The Salt Lake Tribune were paid $20,000 for collaborating with the National Enquirer on an Elizabeth Smart story that the tabloid has since retracted.

The Deseret News, the Tribune's local competitor, reported in a copyright story on Monday that reporters Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera split $20,000. They helped the tabloid on a July 2 story headlined "Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring."

The Tribune's editor, James E. Shelledy, on Sunday wrote in his weekly column about his reporters' involvement with the Florida-based tabloid. Vigh and Cantera, the lead reporters on the Smart case, didn't tell Shelledy of their dealings with the Enquirer until last week, when they offered to resign.

Shelledy refused their resignations.

Instead, he put the reporters on a year of probation, during which time they will be monitored to make sure they do not violate newsroom ethics or polices and are not allowed to freelance, Shelledy said Monday.

He said he "assumed" the two will be taken off of the Smart story.

"Anytime something like this happens, it affects your credibility," Shelledy said. "Everything we've done in our paper has been professional and ethical. We are going to keep doing what we're supposed to be doing and work out of that shadow."

In a written statement, the Smarts said they were disappointed with local media and law enforcement sources who contributed to the article.

"Those overseeing these individuals need to realize the magnitude of such serious legal and ethical issues and take appropriate action," they said.

The tabloid article was published about a month after Elizabeth, then 14, was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom. Elizabeth was found with her alleged captors, Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, March 12 in a Salt Lake suburb.

The Smarts and the Enquirer have reached a confidential settlement over the article and released a joint statement about the story.

"Although at the time it was legally defensible for the Enquirer to publish the information as the Enquirer had no reason to doubt the accuracy or truthfulness of the information provided, the Enquirer has since learned the information provided was inaccurate and false," it said.

Vigh and Cantera told Shelledy about their work for the tabloid after the Smarts' attorney Randy Dryer, contacted the reporters. Dryer on Monday said that he was in talks with the two when Shelledy wrote his Sunday column.

"One thing Vigh and Cantera wanted was to have their identities preserved and protected," Dryer said.

Shelledy said he did not think the reporters would have confessed to working with the tabloid if they had not been forced by the family to either give up their police sources or go public.

"I'm sure they were ashamed," he said.

"People have been fired for a lot less than that, and it's often over the issue of public credibility," said Kelly McBride, member of the Poynter Institute's media ethics faculty. "Certainly what they did compromised the credibility of The Salt Lake Tribune."

However, McBride said that a case could be made for not firing the reporters.

"If they are good reporters, if they have done a good job, if they have been loyal and dedicated, then, yes, you could justify consider keeping them on staff and consider it a lapse of judgment," she said.

She said the amount of money paid to the reporters should have been an ethical "red flag." McBride also questioned the amount of time it took for the reporters to inform the newspaper about their outside work.

"You're protecting yourself and not thinking about your newspaper's credibility with the public, which also needs to be repaired at this point," McBride said.

She said the newspaper deserves credit for sharing the information and the reasoning behind keeping the reporters on staff.

"The Tribune has done a pretty incredible job on the Smart story," McBride said. "To have this taint that is a real shame."

Shelledy added that Vigh and Cantera "embarrassed the staff."

"I would assume most everybody on the staff would condemn what they have done," he said.

Repeated calls to Cantera and Vigh on Sunday and Monday were not returned.

In a March 20 article in the Salt Lake City Weekly, the two reporters were interviewed about walking the fine line between covering the case and protecting a 15-year-old girl's privacy.

Reporters "have to try to protect Elizabeth's privacy as best we can, but that's a tough thing to do," Vigh told the alternative newspaper.

Cantera said: "Everybody wants to know the latest development, but on the same hand Elizabeth deserves the same protection everybody else does. There is a line there and certain places you can't go. There are places that are off limits and I won't go there."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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