Mormon Media Observer: Suggestion to reporters: Replace polygamy coverage with something deeper

Published: Monday, Nov. 29 2010 5:30 a.m. MST

It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the most prominent story in North American this week with the word “Mormon” in it is about polygamy.

According to the Vancouver Sun, members of the FLDS Church are asking the court in Vancouver to have polygamy decriminalized in Canada because criminal sanctions offend a wide variety of legal rights, not just freedom of religion.

Along with the entire FLDS polygamy issue, this is a significant news story worth reporting and worth watching. Without a doubt, the complex relationship between polygamy and freedom of conscience in democracy isn’t going away any time soon, especially as Old World religions with the tradition of polygamy become more prominent in the United States.

The point here is this: As the issue of polygamy continues to receive on-going coverage, what can be said about its coverage relative to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members abandoned the practice more than a century ago?

In short, it needs to change. Reporters need to dig deeper.

In my research of Mitt Romney’s 2008 Presidential Campaign, I discovered that polygamy remains a prominent thread in the coverage of Latter-day Saints and not just in the coverage of the FLDS. In my study, about 1-in-4 articles in campaign coverage with a Mormon focus mentioned the church’s history of polygamy.

In addition to this striking finding, I also observed that depending on how you set up a study, the mention of polygamy was about as frequent in Mitt Romney’s coverage as it was in George Romney’s coverage when he ran for president in the late 1960s. This is significant because there were legitimate news reasons to mention polygamy when George Romney was running for president.

George Romney was born in the Mormon colonies in Mexico, which were established in the context of polygamy persecution in the United States.

It was a legitimate part of his story because his Mexican birth raised questions about his Constitutional fitness for office. Explaining the issue meant reporters also had to explain why Romney was born in Mexico in the first place, and the polygamy issue naturally came up.

Using these two campaigns as a guide, the point is polygamy, if anything, has become more prominent now than it was half a century ago in the coverage of Mormonism.

So, it is easy to say that polygamy is mentioned too frequently in coverage of the LDS Church.

Certainly there are good reasons to talk about polygamy and the Mormon church. In fairness to reporters, I perceive as Mitt Romney’s campaign progressed, they mentioned polygamy less and less, and they were good to point out that the church abandoned the practice a century ago. They learned.

In recent months, it is also true that reporters, when reporting on the FLDS Church, have often said mainstream Mormons no longer practice polygamy and the two churches shouldn’t be confused.

Also in Mitt Romeny’s campaign, it can be said journalists covered issues more central to Mormonism, such as Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

In my opinion, this is an improvement in their reporting from the days of George Romney. These observations, however, don’t change the fact that reporters need to stop finding excuses to write about the history of polygamy in the LDS Church without good reason. It can be compared to reporters writing about a particular organization today while describing its beliefs of a century ago.

For example, the Democratic Party, the champion of the Civil Rights movement, was filled with strident racists 100 years ago, and its historic embrace of slavery can be said to be responsible, in part, for the Civil War. Would it be fair to Democrats to mention their history in 1-in-4 stories about the party? Of course not.

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