Robert Gehrke, a politics and government reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, is using web tools to help the public understand a political scandal. (courtesy of Robert Gehrke)
It started when a businessman indicted for fraud said he lost $250,000 in a bogus deal brokered by Utah’s attorney general.
Businessman Jeremy Johnson had dozens of emails, two financial records, several photos and a 60-page transcript of a secretly recorded meeting all accusing newly-elected Attorney General John Swallow of the crime.
The Salt Lake Tribune first reported Johnson story less than a week after Swallow swore his oath of office in early January.
Since then, the political scandal has taken center stage in Utah, where 78 percent of more than 800 voters called for Swallow to resign in a June 17 Utah Voter Poll.
But readers might not know what to think if Robert Gehrke, a politics and government reporter at the Tribune, hadn’t been giving them a reporter’s-eye view of the scandal for the past eight months.
Gehrke has been working with the Tribune’s staff to share firsthand documents about the scandal online and create interactive web graphics to help readers untangle all the names, numbers and accusations.
“The problem we’ve run into with this is there are a number of different allegations made against the attorney general,” Gehrke said. “It’s hard for us as reporters to keep them straight so it’s hard for readers, too.”
Before Swallow was elected, he was allegedly told Johnson that the businessman could avoid a federal investigation of his company by paying $600,000 to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But after Johnson paid Swallow $250,000 to seal the deal, the government filed a lawsuit against him anyway.
Johnson demanded Swallow refund his money. But the attorney general hopeful allegedly refused.
Swallow denied Johnson’s allegations, along with a series of other claims about fraud, waste and power abuse that surfaced about him in the following months.
All the speculation eventually resulted in five separate investigations into Swallow’s conduct.
“It’s gotten to the point that there’s so much out there, and it’s so hard to organize that the Web graphics seemed like a good idea,” Gehrke said.
One of the Tribune’s most recent Web graphics is a chart showing the social network of the scandal. It lists the cast of characters like a Shakespearean play, so the public can keep track of who’s who and see a breakdown of the allegations.
“It helps readers hopefully understand the dynamics of this,” Gehrke said. “We can update it as needed and use it to keep readers informed about how things fit into the overall picture.”
Gehrke also helped create an interactive timeline to keep readers up-to-date with the chronology of how the scandal is transpiring.
“It’s fairly bare bones, but timelines don’t need to be anything sparkly or in-depth,” Gehrke said.
The chart and the timeline both provide links to previous stories and primary source documents Gehrke posted if readers want to know more.
Gehrke has been posting receipts, court filings, emails and audio tapes online with his stories since the scandal began.
He uses Scribd to post most of the paper records, and the Tribune’s graphics person uses YouTube to post the larger audio files with a Tribune logo.
Gehrke said he prefers whatever Web tools are the most convenient that serve his purposes. Although he’s been a reporter for more than 15 years, using such tools is something he’s had to learn to be more comfortable with over time.
Now he errs on posting all firsthand documents online to let the readers see as much information as possible.
“It’s not a space constraint; it doesn’t take that long, and I think readers appreciate it,” Gehrke said.
He didn’t think it was worth the time and effort to post firsthand documents when he was reporting on articles that died after one day. But when a story is ongoing like this one, he said it has been helpful to have an inventory of information to quickly link and reference—especially when credibility is at stake.
“In something like this where you might have parties that have differing versions of events, you can send people to reference original documents,” Gehrke said. “Then readers can make up their own minds and evaluate the claims being made on their own.”
For reporters who want to build interactive Web graphics similar to those Gehrke produced, Columbia Journalism Review suggests Infogr.am for info graphics and TimelineJS for timelines.
Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.