2021: The Journalism

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Miller has been a criminal justice reporter at The Tribune for 10 years.

Help for troubled teens

Jessica Miller’s investigation into alleged abuses at troubled-teen treatment centers resulted in new law, which created the first new regulation of these facilities in 15 years. Moving forward, centers must report when they put kids in isolation or use medication to control their behaviors. Annual inspections will go from one planned visit each year to four visits (some unannounced).

“There’s a natural tension between the press and the Legislature from time to time. I think Jessica Miller has been fantastic,” said bill sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell, during the first committee hearing. “I don’t know where she is in the room, but I think she’s done a fantastic job with her investigative reporting at The Tribune, finding some of the failures in the state of Utah. And I think that’s to be appreciated.”

Jessica’s work has been cited dozens of times in academic journals, other news accounts and is serving as a foundation for a new federal bill. It also caught the attention of APM Reports and KUER. The Tribune has been invited to work on a national podcast called “Sent Away,” is set to launch in March 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Police work a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

How BYU police helped with Honor Code surveillance

Brigham Young University and The Tribune spent five years entangled in open records litigation over police records that were misused in Honor Code investigations.

The fight spanned three Tribune editors, and I am grateful to Terry Orme and Jennifer Napier-Pearce, as well as to those who funded the costly litigation, including then-publisher and current board chair Paul Huntsman.

The Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting, which revealed the punitive and cruel treatment given to sexual assault victims at BYU, one of Utah’s most powerful institutions.

The parties this year resolved the contested open records requests (first made in 2016) without further litigation. 

Newly released documents reveal how BYU’s response to questions raised about the lieutenant’s conduct — from skipping the usual internal investigation to blocking state officials’ access to information — led to an unprecedented and unsuccessful battle to eliminate the department.


They also confirmed campus police Lt. Aaron Rhoades inappropriately accessed reports related to nearly a dozen other students. They show this surveillance of students was part of a de facto system, with university employees in several school departments asking for information.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 150-acre Panguitch Research Farm is the former location of the Panguitch Boarding School that operated from 1904 to 1909.

Indigenous burial site discovered

At America’s Indigenous boarding schools, children were punished for speaking their language. They endured harsh discipline, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Many never came home. 

Tribune reporters in August reported on the discovery at one small school in Panguitch, where historians believe there are 12 bodies buried.

While many aspects of America’s treatment of its Indigenous communities remain undiscussed, the 20th century’s chapter in the story of the treatment of America’s Indigenous people is largely ignored. Alastair Lee Bitsoi and Courtney Tanner will continue their reporting in 2022, visiting the six other former and current boarding school sites in Utah.

Who police in Utah shoot

The Tribune’s work on police shootings — we are the only entity in Utah to maintain a database that details how many shootings take place every year — informed legislation that passed in January, including bills restricting police from shooting people who are suicidal and requiring more use of force data to be collected.
A collaboration with FRONTLINE led to a documentary called Shots Fired, which aired on PBS stations across the country in November.

Find a link to the documentary as well as all Tribune reporting on police shootings in Utah here.

(Photo courtesy Uintah County) The Uintah County Commission has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal CARES pandemic relief money to build the Buckskin Hills tubing hill, including $19,999 each for six snow guns, that opened Jan. 15, 2021.

Uintah County spending

Uintah County spent $500,000 in federal relief funds on a tubing hill, The Tribune reported exclusively. Later, county commissioners were found to have “blurred the lines of accountability” when they decided how Uintah County spent its federal coronavirus money. The Tribune also reported a state audit found Uintah County officials overseeing the nearly $3.5 million in business grants that came from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES) did nothing to verify or document whether applicants had been impacted by the pandemic, putting the funding at risk.

As county residents tried to speak at a meeting regarding the spending, the commissioners shut them down: “you’re a public servant,” said one resident, according to a recording. “To not let us speak … my goodness, it’s not right.”

Tribune reporter Leia Larsen’s coverage was recognized with a “Squeal award” from Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst uses the awards to identify wasteful government spending.

“In Utah, those dreaming of a white Christmas had their wish come true with a flurry of COVID-19 cash. Nearly half a million dollars of taxpayers’ money was blown to literally make snow and create an outdoor winter wonderland.” Ernst’s office wrote in a news release.

“In the end, it was the struggling small business owners…who really got snowed,” the release concluded.

More public spending woes

In 2021, we reported the Securities and Exchange Commission was making inquiries into tests provided by Co-Diagnostics, a Salt Lake City company, shortly after coronavirus arrived in Utah.

The SEC’s inquiry was just one of the findings in our reporting, which also examined the company’s surging stock price and profitability — leading to multiple lawsuits alleging “manipulative and deceptive practices” — as well as intercessions on behalf of the offices of Sen. Mitt Romney and then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

It started with a question: As so many suffered and sacrificed, who in Utah benefited from the coronavirus? To answer the question, we reviewed previous reporting, SEC filings for public companies involved in Utah’s coronavirus response, thousands of pages of public records and lawsuits filed both at the state and federal levels. 

Co-Diagnostics stood out for its significant financial turnaround, from losses of more than $6 million in 2019 to a profit of more than $42 million in 2020, even as the accuracy of its tests was repeatedly questioned. Utah has awarded Nomi, the contractor that procured Co-Diagnostics tests, millions in coronavirus-related no-bid contracts.

(Kim Raff | Special to ProPublica) The Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Open Records

When the Utah Legislature created the Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, it recognized the public’s right of access to information concerning the conduct of the public’s business.

In plain English, that you are paying the government’s bills and you deserve to know how it is serving you.

Each journalist tracks requests differently. Some set reminders on their calendars so they can nudge public officials if a document doesn’t arrive. Others use a spreadsheet to track their requests.

We know we have made more than 300 requests for public documents so far this year.

Some records are off limits, including property tax detail, voter registration information, health information and student records, as is appropriate given the privacy rights we have as individuals.

Here’s a sampling of what we requested:

  • Jail records and police reports regarding Buk M. Buk, who is charged with killing Utah football player Aaron Lowe
  • A letter of reprimand sent to Utah School Board member Natalie Cline
  • Garrity reports from police departments across the state.
  • Comments submitted during the University of Utah’s presidential search
  • Sustained violations of youth treatment centers from Office of Licensing
  • Settlement info on lawsuits filed against Utah County Sheriff’s Office
  • Daily traffic counts on Utah highways and complaints/suggestions made to Salt Lake City 
  • Utah Department of Health data on COVID-19 during pregnancy
  • Amazon business licenses in Utah cities
  • University of Utah football game contracts
  • Records of threats against hospital employees due to disputes over COVID-19 treatment
  • Records of COVID-19 “super spreader” events
  • Correspondence between federal prosecutors, UDOH and Dan Richards over hydroxychloroquine purchase

We don’t receive 100% of the records we request. We regularly ask the state records committee to review denials. We are sometimes charged for the privilege, as we were in Moab in fall of 2021 (along with dozens of other entities, a likely violation of state records law).

And there is likely no more important tool for a news reporter in Utah, or any other state. Consider the words of Mike Wallentine, West Jordan Police Chief:

Policing works best when the public grants trust to the police. That trust is inherently fragile . . . If law enforcement executives erect too many barriers to transparency, we may find our political masters pulling them down.

(Ranger Peterson) Friends and family pay tribute to Aaron Navarro at a fundraiser softball tournament on Sept. 10, 2021, less than a week after Navarro died from COVID-19 in St. George. Navarro and Nathan Spendlove, left, have long been instrumental in addiction recovery support groups and sports leagues in southwest Utah. Navarro’s daughters, Dallas and Saleena Navarro, center and right, wear their father’s jersey in his honor. The dates on the shirts signify a sobriety “birthday,” or the date when recovery began.

Coronavirus, with context

A story Erin Alberty wrote comparing Salt Lake City’s school infection rates with other districts was so clear and well-reasoned that a University of Utah professor asked for copies to use in teaching a graduate-level epidemiology class.

Courtney Tanner’s piece on a woman named Tina, who was on a ventilator after contracting coronavirus and who remained hospitalized for months, drew hundreds of thousands of readers. The story resonated with people who had also supported family members that fell ill. Tina had to learn to walk, talk and eat again. And she came home following months of hospitalizations, serving as an inspiration for others.
Few parts of Utah have been hit by coronavirus as hard as the southwest. Five counties — Washington, Iron, Garfield, Beaver and Kane — in 2021 reported more deaths per capita than any of the state’s other large health districts. When calls to vaccinate appear on the local health department’s Facebook page, they frequently are mocked with “laughing” reactions. Reporter Erin Alberty takes us behind decisions families in the region made, and why.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists pushing for a forensic audit of the 2020 election in Utah, rally at the Capitol on Oct. 20, 2021. A group known as the Utah Voter Verification Project is conducting a door-to-door canvass of voters in Utah looking for election fraud.

Rooting out misinformation

Despite no evidence of voting irregularities in Utah, Reporter Bryan Schott told readers about people knocking on Washington County doors to ask questions about the 2020 election.

They did not wear name tags and refused to identify themselves or what organization they were with. They also appeared to have the personal voter information of the people they were questioning.

The group calls itself the Utah Voter Verification Project (UVVP), and it’s the latest front in the “Stop the Steal” election fraud conspiracy movement. The group has no mainstream online presence. Most volunteers are recruited through alternative messaging apps like Telegram.

As we look ahead to 2022, we can expect to see additional efforts to obfuscate our clear and fair voting process in Utah. And you can expect The Tribune to continue to provide fact-based reporting on Utah developments.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Tribune photographer Rick Egan feels the effects of being pepper sprayed in the eyes while documenting Trump supporters gathered outside the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

Jan. 6 in Utah: Tribune photographer is attacked

Tribune photojournalist Rick Egan was pepper-sprayed, verbally attacked and followed by protesters on Jan. 6 at the Utah State Capitol, who were expressing support for then-President Donald Trump.

Rick recovered physically. Our newsroom and our community came to his side, offering kind thoughts like this:

Please tell Rick Egan, when you see him next, there are many people, not just photographers, who stand with him.

Thank you, 

Martin 

We also offered our team support through our Employee Assistance Program. 

And it was imperative that we quickly turned our attention to future planned protests as the federal government prepared for a presidential transition like no other.

Reporters, photographers and editors met to outline best practices for staying safe. Tribune journalists built group texts and exit plans. We procured safety goggles and Sudecon wipes, should we be pepper-sprayed again. We communicated with other media and first responders planning to staff the events.

We decided we would not wear our badges on the front of our clothes. We discussed how to avoid getting crushed in a panic. We talked about the need to consistently read the crowd and first responders for changes in mood or posture.

It is our responsibility and our privilege to share with you what is happening in our community. And, we regularly talk about the fact that no individual story and no picture is more important than our safety. 

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Women in Utah

Report for America Reporter Becky Jacobs sharpened The Tribune’s focus on what Utahns can do to lift women out of their last-in-the-nation status as it pertains to equity. She shared solutions, including promoting more women to executive-level positions and supporting their candidacies for public office. Becky also highlighted where private industry in Utah is getting it right, by providing childcare onsite or by evaluating pay equity across gender lines.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt Rickards, head football coach at Kearns High, during practice Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

West-side reporting

  • Karen Mayne, a Utah senator, shared Alixel Cabrera’s Kearns football coach profile and promoted donations to the school’s food pantries on the west side.
  • Marcus Stevenson, mayor-elect of Midvale said he heard from residents who made their choice after reading our 2021 voter guide in this year’s municipal elections.
  • Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is investigating Bluffdale’s former fire chief and mayoral candidate after The Tribune (and other outlets) reported on misconduct accusations.
  • In September, The Tribune’s Innovation Lab hosted a West Valley City listening session with stakeholders to help people across the valley better understand what west valley residents need. The session was followed by consistent reporting specific to community needs.
(Illustration by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Here are some of the Twitter postings by #DezNat users, who say they are defending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from “apostates.”

Faith & Finances

Tony Semerad’s in-depth coverage of Ensign Peak Advisors, the $45 billion-plus investment account held by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has led other media outlets worldwide to follow the story and offered an example of transparency with respect to the church’s finances.

Our take on the church’s canceled plans to build a temple and housing development in Erda and relocate to Tooele instead brought a rare look at how the faith’s top leaders got directly involved in key decisions related to the project and its impact on surrounding communities.

Peggy Fletcher Stack’s continued coverage, through our “Mormon Land” podcast, of the faith’s plans to remove historic murals from the Manti Temple (when no other media outlets were doing so). The church later reversed its decision, instead saving the paintings and building a new temple in neighboring Ephraim.

Peggy Stack’s landmark piece about DezNat shined a light on this online army of religious zealots and remains the gold standard for reporting on these divisive digital warriors. Her piece also led to the first-ever LDS Church statement on DezNat.

A ProPublica collaboration brought a story to Tribune readers about how, over the past decade, the Utah Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law. The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program enables poor people to get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. Bishops can decide, as a precondition of receiving welfare, recipients have to read, understand and embrace Latter-day Saint scripture. 


We celebrated the “Mormon Land” podcast’s 200th episode with a live taping. “ML” has become a must-listen for many members, ex-members, disaffected members and nonmembers — anyone interested in current topics surrounding Mormonism.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)