As an assistant professor teaching journalism at BYU, I've been spending my holidays grading news reporting, journalistic research and First Amendment legal analysis.
It's now time to issue some grades for the news media's reporting for the past few weeks on Latter-day Saints and their beliefs most of it prompted by the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.
"A" Work: I've been critical of reporters who depend solely on sources outside the LDS Church for information. I believe good reporters will not allow others to define LDS beliefs but instead go to genuine, believing church members. The Orange County register did just that with a short article and shorter video version of a Q & A interview with President Weatherford Clayton, president of Newport Beach California Stake. Printed Dec. 28, reporter Bill Cunningham helps cut through the misconceptions and goes to a local source. That's good religion reporting. While some of the reader comments attached to the story suggest Cunningham avoided tough questions, I disagree.
"B" Work: The Economist magazine features the LDS Church in one of its "Christmas Specials." Unbylined, it's a pretty fair and balanced report but I would mark it down for poor sourcing. And of course, we can't forget the stereotypical headline, "From Polygamy to Propriety." So isn't 117 years since polygamy was renounced long enough for copy editors to stop putting it in headlines?
Take the following paragraph, for example: "The Book of Mormon describes how Jesus came to the New World after his resurrection and preached to native Americans. Parts of the text are supposedly a contemporary account of events that took place more than 1,500 years ago. Yet historians note various anachronisms, such as horses, steel and wheat. Neither the archaeological record nor any account besides the Book of Mormon suggests their presence in pre-Colombian America."
The writer never bothers to ask any LDS scholars about this, but simply cites unnamed historians. Several academic articles available on the Web at the Neal A. Maxwell Center for Religious Scholarship at BYU explore this issue and give evidence of pre-Columbian horses. The author easily dismisses the origins of The Book of Abraham by unnamed experts without response.
"C" Work: Vermont Public Radio tried to do a story about Mormons at Joseph Smith's birthplace in Sharon, Vt. Instead of talking about the faith,however, the reporter turns the story into how the church is "mum" about politics and won't give access to missionaries. It was a missed opportunity for the reporter and for the church.
"D" Work: In news reporting classes that I teach I talk a lot about "relevance" and a "news peg." I couldn't find much of either in this very long piece about Mitt Romney's involvement in the building of the Boston Temple in Belmont, Mass. Based on the article's sheer verbosity, you would think Romney played some leading role in building the temple and selecting the site. Although it is framed with the sinister headline, "Mormon Temple Casts a Shadow," the article doesn't make that case. It was written by WaPo Style writer Sridhar Pappu, who appears to be assigned to provide some meaningful narratives on the candidates. This one is a dull story and not too meaningful at that. Maybe Pappu felt like he had more to write after his novella on Romney ran in the September 2005 Atlantic, in which he asked Romney "How Mormon are you?" and then quizzed him about his undergarments. It was certainly one of the low points of the coverage of the presidential campaign.
"F" Work: When do Mormons get to define themselves? There are dozens of examples of news reports where journalists turn to Evangelicals to define Mormons and their religion. It's unfair not to give Latter-day Saints opportunities to respond or even define the conversation. While mainstream Christian practice and theology may be more familiar to journalists, to use a measuring stick of traditional Christianity to rate Mormon beliefs is not good journalism. Unfortunately, journalists sometimes report less-familiar theology with suspicion, and as idiosyncratic. To me, that's bias.
Here's a perfect example from the New York Times. Under the menacing headline, "Fear and Faith: A Mormon's Ultimate Doorbell," writer Laurie Goodstein talks to three prominent evangelicals, but nary a Mormon unless you count Mitt Romney, who is quoted in excerpts from his "faith and politics" speech.
And in a publication that should know better, Editor and Publisher magaine allowed ex-Mormon and political cartoonist Steve Benson a free pass to blast his former faith without any rebuttal from members.
In the columns and opinion writing category, surely the following merit grades:
"A" The Christian Science Monitor for its editorial about how a large bias against a Mormon for president is the next barrier to fall in U.S. politics; a column by The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens, a Presbyterian minister, about no religious test for candidates in the Vail (Colo.) Daily; and an editorial in the Erie (Pa.) Times-News about not mixing religion and politics.
"B" An interesting, but irreverent, column in Mother Jones about why Mitt Romney doesn't talk more about the strengths of his church, including Mormon voluntarism; and a column in the Santa Clarita (Calif.) Valley Signal about what the writer considers to be important Mormon history.
"F" I sure am glad that Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher decided he has the power to decide who is Christian or not; Greg Marchant, an Indiana columnist who claims little knowledge of the LDS Church, shows even greater ignorance by giving credence to the bigoted rant of Lawrence O'Donnell; and if there was something lower than "F" I would give it to this column by Timothy Garton Ash, a columnist in the British national newspaper The Guardian, who leads his column by suggesting that various derivations of the word "Moron" could be used in place of the word "Mormon." It is the kind of "sophisticated" wit you would expect in the worst of high school newspapers.
(Joel Campbell is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at BYU. He was a reporter and editor at the Deseret Morning News for 15 years and has also worked in corporate communications. He holds a master's degree from the Ohio State University and a bachelor's degree from BYU.)