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'Mormon' term often misused

Published: Thursday, Aug. 31 2006 12:24 p.m. MDT

George Togliatti, director of the Nevada Department of Public Safety, talks with reporters Tuesday after the apprehension of Warren Steed Jeffs.

Jud Burkett, TheSpectrum/AP Photo

It seems like just when the mainstream LDS Church gets some accurate media attention, another "Mormon" story blasts onto the scene, spawning a flurry of sound bites that often confuse those who live outside Utah.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for years has waged a vigorous public relations battle to gets its message across with award-winning TV commercials and well-received interviews of President Gordon B. Hinckley by such television personalities as Mike Wallace, Tom Brokaw and Larry King.

Then comes something like this week's arrest of Warren Jeffs, the leader of a secretive polygamist sect that in no way is connected to the LDS Church but considers itself the true standard bearer for the beliefs set forth by LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.

Jeffs, who has been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, faces criminal charges in Utah and Arizona that center largely around his alleged insistence on presiding over "marriages" between underage girls and older men who practice polygamy. The LDS Church renounced polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice it.

But to hear some TV and radio news, one might think the two religions are the same. And the inaccuracies have spread worldwide with wire service reports reaching across the globe.

ABC-TV referred to the Jeffs arrest this way: "Excommunicated Mormon polygamist leader Warren Jeffs is behind bars.... "

Other ABC newscasts describe him as "the fugitive leader of a polygamist Mormon sect."

Jeffs has never been a member of the LDS Church nor has he ever been excommunicated from it or any religious organization.

With 12 million members, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, issued a statement Tuesday evening attempting to clarify some of the terminology and information now in the headlines.

"Quite simply, calling Warren Jeffs a Mormon is misleading and confusing to the vast majority of audiences who rightfully associate the term 'Mormon' with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," the statement said.

Among other things, the LDS Church's press release states that its members do not practice polygamy, that "Mormon" is a nickname referring to members of its church, and insists that there is no such thing as a "Mormon fundamentalist" or "Mormon sect." Instead, such groups should be termed "polygamist sects," the press release said.

"The inclusion of the word 'Mormon' is misleading and inaccurate," the release said.

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter issued this statement on Wednesday: "We're pro-active in reaching out to the media to educate them about proper use of the church's name and the word 'Mormon.'" You've seen the statement from the AP (Associated Press) stylebook that says that word is not correctly attributed to any other organization.

"If news outlets get it wrong, we will contact them and correct them. Over time, it's gotten better. Sometimes it only takes once, and other times people have to be reminded," Trotter said. "My experience has been they are very respectful and grateful for the information. ... "

"As it comes to our attention we address it. We'll go right to the reporter," rather than seeking out newsroom management, Trotter said.

"I think the coverage could be a lot worse," said Stewart Hoover, a University of Colorado professor of media studies and religious studies.

"I think the LDS Church has done a better job, a more careful and effective job in educating people about its positions on things than some other churches. Maybe it's because the LDS Church has owned media (Deseret Morning News, KSL Radio, KSL-TV), so it knows media."

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