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Inside the newsroom: The perils of reporting on a smear campaign

FILE - Presidential candidate Evan McMullin, right, and his running mate, Mindy Finn, meet with the Deseret News and KSL Editorial Board in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
FILE - Presidential candidate Evan McMullin, right, and his running mate, Mindy Finn, meet with the Deseret News and KSL Editorial Board in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Robocalls were made to Utah homes on back-to-back days followed by an apology for the content on the day after that. Three days of possible news that originated with a smear of independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin during the final week of the campaign.

How do you report on a smear? Do you repeat the smear in describing its contents? Do you attach audio of the actual call, thus sending it to web users, radio listeners and TV viewers far beyond the simple automated phone calls? In reporting on the smear, is media then complicit in spreading that message, thus letting it become a clever and thinly veiled manipulation of the media?

Each question was part of the ethical considerations our newsroom faced this week when a man identified as William Johnson financed a robocall that went into Utah homes. The call made allegations against McMullin in an effort to push voters away and to boost support for Republican candidate Donald Trump.

The call drew outrage from some who received the call and who were quick to bring it to the attention of our reporters, as did the McMullin campaign itself, which expressed its own outrage.

The call begins: "Hello, my name is William Johnson. I am a farmer and a white nationalist. I make this call against Evan McMullin and in support of Donald Trump." He then levels aspersions against McMullin's family and questions his sexuality, among other things.

It brought this response from McMullin: "Donald Trump's supporter, ally and donor William Johnson, an avowed white nationalist and racist, today launched a false and revolting robocall at hundreds of thousands of Utah households." The statement then denies the specific allegations and condemns this "vision of Donald Trump's America."

Trump's camp distanced itself from the calls and said it had no part in them.

The fact of the call and the direct responses certainly made it newsworthy, and we reported it as such, making the decision to include specific aspects of the allegations and the specific denials from all parties. The reports provided the needed context for those receiving the calls and became another story — another data point — for voters to consider as they make their voting decisions.

On the second day, a new robocall went out, repeating the aspersions, but this time also falsely claiming KSL as a source. KSL issued a statement: "Those claims are categorically false," which we reported. We did not repeat the allegations beyond providing context and clarity. The Deseret News and KSL work together in a multiplatform newsroom.

A third story was possible when Johnson then issued an apology: "I am sorry for the mean-spirited message, and I humbly retract its contents." We reported the apology but did not report further statements he made as a part of the apology espousing his beliefs in an effort to limit any manipulation he is making of the media.

There is no question Johnson succeeded in making news. And in some respects he succeeded in getting his self-described "mean-spirited message" out. McMullin was able to issue his denials, and in so doing he had a platform for again describing his motivations for running.

Slurs, personal attacks, dirty tricks and angry words are not unique to this presidential campaign. But in the social media internet age and the world of instant information, great diligence is required to accurately reflect our political climate while working to limit manipulation of the media and the perpetuation of hate messages.

Doug Wilks is managing editor of the News Division, the multiplatform newsroom of the Deseret News and KSL.