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BYU symposium discusses Mormons, media relationship

Published: Saturday, Nov. 13 2010 1:52 a.m. MST

PROVO — The LDS Church's greatest untapped media resource is rank-and-file members who simply want to share the joy they feel in being members, a leading church spokesman said Friday.

"(They can) help shape the public identity of the church by telling their own stories," Michael Otterson, managing director of LDS Public Affairs, said during the first Mormon Media symposium at BYU. "I want to emphasize how enormously significant this development is. Empowering individual members is a tool we're only just beginning to understand."

Individual members' voices, full of clarity, kindness, honesty and backed by example, can be found in commercials, blogs and YouTube videos.

Other voices include church leaders, sympathetic LDS media, Mormon commentators, non-Mormon bloggers, non-LDS journalists, anti-Mormon critics and Mormons with megaphones, like Glenn Beck or Harry Reid who, while famous Mormons, don't represent the church, Otterson said.

Yet finding a voice speaking about the LDS Church isn't always easy, explained several local journalists.

"I always want more than usually I get," said Jennifer Dobner, who covers the LDS Church for the Associated Press. "It's an institution, and institutions inherently have limitations on how much they can say, what they're willing to say, and sometimes that's never going to be enough for a journalist."

Fox 13 reporter Bob Evans noted that often the church will issue a statement, yet no one will go on camera to comment on it, which makes a visual story much more difficult.

Good access is often granted, like in early 1995, when then-newly called LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was planning a tour to New England and gave Boston-based TV reporter Jon Du Pre an interview while he instructed his entourage to wait in the back of the chapel.

"I think there's an assumption that the relationship between the church and media, the press, is adversarial," said Du Pre, who now works for Salt Lake's ABC4. "(President Hinckley) taught me it doesn't have to be that way."

In fact, openness and transparency is the goal of the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee, which includes two apostles — Elders M. Russell Ballard and Quentin Cook — and other general authorities, Otterson said.

Elder Cook, in particular, is extremely well-versed in media, Otterson said. He daily reads the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the local papers with amazing speed. Other church leaders stay up to date with iPads and frequent media briefings.

"Our intent today is to give as much context, as much of the environment, as we possibly can to a story," Otterson said. "We absolutely do not see journalists as the adversaries. That would be a huge mistake."

While most of the reporters who cover the LDS Church are not members, membership in the church does not preclude good journalism skills.

"You don't have to be a disgusting person to be a good journalist," said BYU communications professor and former Deseret News editor John Hughes, quoting what he tells his students.

"There are a number of ethical problems confronting us as journalists, maybe who better than you," Hughes tells his students, "(You) who come from this background with a strong feeling for ethics and good behavior, maybe you're the kind of people who should be out there trying to make journalism better than it is."

email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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