Lessons from Smart case have police sources staying mum

The Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case and surrounding media circus two years ago produced a striking difference in how the Salt Lake City Police Department is handling the news media in the Lori Hacking disappearance.

“Absolutely we are applying lessons we learned in the Smart case,” police spokesman Dwayne Baird said Wednesday. “We have one mouthpiece for this Police Department. They know what to say and how to say it and they don’t deviate from our position. You don’t have lots of people saying lots of things.”

Reporters and editors covering the case agree the police have been tight-lipped and disciplined. National reporters from CNN and Fox News Channel, as well as local stations, newspapers and even Brigham Young University student reporters, have relentlessly peppered Baird with questions in a case with more than its share of strange twists.

But try as they might, reporters have been able to pry out precious little detail.

“Mr. Baird has chosen his words carefully,” said KUTV Channel 2 news director Steve Charlier. “Our people are finding [police] are very specific about what they can and cannot say. There is a definite sense that they have learned lessons from the Elizabeth Smart case.”

Salt Lake Tribune managing editor Terry Orme said “individual detectives and other officials defer to Dwayne Baird.”

Orme said the tighter rules have a downside. “When you have a dearth of information, it’s hard to tell the readers what is going on. But I can appreciate the police wanting to be careful and do their work thoroughly before they release anything.”

The Elizabeth Smart abduction and subsequent recovery were notable as much for national interest they generated as rumors the case spawned.

The Salt Lake Tribune was mired in a scandal when it was discovered that two of its reporters had sold information on the case to a national tabloid, which later produced a salacious story based on so-called leaks and unnamed sources.

The Smart family’s pursuit of those sources led to investigations of law enforcement’s relationship with the press.

The most significant lesson learned is to stay mum on possible evidence.

“[Media] people heard bits and pieces about evidence during the Smart case, then wanted to know where one piece fit with the next,” Baird said. “Now, we just don’t discuss evidence or methods of gathering evidence.”

When the leaks were not confirmed, the media lashed out at the investigators, he said. “When we didn’t give them more information, then they turned the focus on the police. That we were botching the investigation. Which wasn’t true.”

Now, Baird said, some reporters “are just disgusted we won’t give them more details.”

Charlier said the police’s new approach “makes it easier and it makes it harder” for reporters.

“There hasn’t been a ton of leaks like in the Elizabeth Smart case. But we found ourselves competing against wild leaks and rumors. Trying to decide what’s real and what’s not only creates more problems for the family, the police and the media.”

Some of the reports based on a vague “investigative source” in the Hacking case were broadcast on the cable Fox News Channel, which Renai Bodley, vice president of news at Salt Lake’s KSTU Fox 13, emphasizes is a separate entity from her station.

Fox’s national reports contained purported crime scene details despite authorities’ refusal to confirm or comment on them.

The situation has put Fox 13 in an awkward position, Bodley said. “They are independent of us. In the case of this story, they are definitely working separately from us. We had a long talk with Fox News Channel about their sources. They are protecting their sources, which is understandable – but if we can’t independently confirm it, we don’t go with it.”

The controversial reports were broadcast on the cable Fox channel, but not KSTU Fox 13 or its Web site.

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