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Coverage of Romney's Mormon religion appears more fair than in '08

Published: Thursday, June 23 2011 12:27 a.m. MDT

For the first time two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are officially competing for the GOP nomination for president of the United States of America, and the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. is already the subject of considerable media attention.

In 2008, coverage of Romney's Mormonism was sometimes unfair or inaccurate, said Lane Williams, a doctoral candidate who performed extensive research on the subject. Yet, reporting on the Mormon faith of Romney and Huntsman may be changing, becoming more fair and accurate.

Having studied some 200 articles on Romney's Mormonism during graduate work at the University of Maryland, Williams estimated that about one-fourth of the articles used the word "cult" in association with the LDS Church and a similar amount used the word "polygamy." Additionally, "secrecy" or "secretive" was used in some form in nearly 40 percent of the articles.

"Reporters would often use language like, 'Sometimes Christian groups consider Mormonism a cult," Williams said. "While it's an accurate portrayal, there is still significant ... (negative) power in linking Mormonism, even if indirectly, with the word cult."

The same goes for polygamy, according to past LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

"In 1890, that practice (of polygamy) was discontinued," said President Hinckley in a 1998 interview with Larry King, "...the man who occupied the position which I occupy today, went before the people, (and) said ... it was time to stop, to discontinue it then. That's 118 years ago. It's behind us." Hinckley condemned contemporary practice of polygamy, and said, "I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal."

Aside from polygamy, the LDS Church laments associations with the word secretive; they currently publish their handbook for church governance online and claim that church members only shy from discussing Mormon temple worship because they consider it sacred. The church is also quick to point those who are curious to the church's ample publications about LDS temples and temple worship.

Yet, aside from all the problems with media coverage of Mormonism during Romney's campaign, many journalists got a lot of things right. "They mentioned The Book of Mormon frequently, Joseph Smith frequently and prophets and the restoration, and that shows an effort to report what's central to who LDS are," Williams said.

For the LDS Church's part, they hope reporters will continue to portray their beliefs accurately.

During Romney's last campaign, "media wanted to go to people who were not members of the church to find out about the church," said Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the LDS church's Quorum of the Twelve, in an interview with the Mormon Channel earlier this year, "So we visited the editorial boards of most of the major newspapers, starting with the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and all across the country." The church delivered several suggestions to these editorial boards, among them: try talking to members of the church directly to find out what Mormons believe.

"That (message) resonated with the media," Elder Cook said. And it's starting to show.

Recent articles about Mormonism in major publications have featured members of the LDS Church discussing their beliefs.

For example, in Businessweek's feature published two weeks ago titled, "God's MBAs: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders," the magazine interviewed a few non-Mormons and a laundry list of members of the LDS faith, including Gary Cornia, dean of Brigham Young University's management school; Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen; Provo Missionary Training Center President Gordon Brown; and Dave Checketts, chairman of SCP Wordwide, which has sports, entertainment and media divisions, among many others.

Another feature on Mormons, published earlier this month by Newsweek, also interviewed various members of the LDS faith. The magazine's package on Mormons even included a sidebar highlighting various LDS Church members describing their positive experiences with the faith.

"I do believe there is a maturing in the media coverage of Mormonism this second time around," said Phil Barlow, professor of Mormon Studies at Utah State University. Yet, he warned that perfectly accurate coverage might be expecting too much.

"In a wild, broad American democracy of hundreds of millions of people, during an Internet age when bloggers can say more or less whatever they want, (accuracy), while not too much to ask, is too much to expect."

Nonetheless, Elder Cook noted that for members of a religious faith which used to be defined by cliches, myths and even the word cult, it's an improvement to now have reporters viewing members of the LDS faith as "people of character" and "people who are by and large approaching things from a wise and an educated point of view."

EMAIL: hboyd@desnews.com

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