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Mormon Media Observer: Will media treat Mormons favorably in 2012?

Published: Tuesday, May 17 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

Last week marked the return of Mormons running for president in the nation’s news media in a big way. Mormonism will be discussed, again, at some length this election year. Or so it appears.

But if the initial coverage is any indication, I think the coverage this time will be more insightful about and more favorable toward Mormonism.

That Mormon candidates have come up again is shown in Romney’s much-publicized health care speech at the University of Michigan. So does the new profile of Jon Huntsman in Time.

There was also an article in the New Republic by Matt Bowman, an editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He wrote:

“But, beyond mere differences of personality, Romney and Huntsman also represent two very different strains of Mormonism. While both men are the progeny of the same class of wealthy Mormon elite, Huntsman's public life is born of a younger strain of Mormonism than is Mitt Romney's — a Mormonism increasingly well-adapted to the boisterous diversity of early 21st century America, and, perhaps because of that, a Mormonism with which America is growing increasingly comfortable.”

I have mixed feelings about Bowman’s piece. I don’t really think there are two strains of Mormonism; however, what this article shows to me is how far the coverage may have come. For example, Damon Linker, a former visiting instructor at BYU, who is not a Mormon, wrote a scathing essay about Mormonism being a politically perilous religion in The New Republic during the last campaign. In my view it was hurtful.

While I have a few minor quibbles with this newer article, I found no disrespect. It was nothing like the Linker piece. The author clearly bears no animus towards Mormonism, and I presume is a Mormon.

The Time story made Mormonism a minor element of the coverage, whereas Romney’s early Time profile, Mormonism seemed to dominate.

What a change this may portend. Thanks to the efforts of Mormons to be heard and to be proactive, and thanks to the efforts of journalists, I think Mormonism will get a much better shake this go-around.

I spent hundreds of hours studying the coverage of Romney's 2008 campaign and I found that Mormonism was covered unfavorably.

While many favorable aspects of Mormonism appeared, in my study sample, Mormon secrecy — supposed anyway — emerged in about one in four stories and as many as 4 in 10, depending on how you looked at it.

Polygamy appeared in one in four stories. Think of that. Imagine if one in four stories about the Democratic Party mentioned its racial legacy of 100 years ago. Imagine if stories about the Republican Party mentioned its legacy of virulent anti-Mormonism from 100 years ago.

Such would be unfair to the modern parties. Yet, in my sample polygamy appeared in 1-in-4 stories about Romney in 2008. Such deserves rebuke.

But when I plotted the frequency of polygamy over time, I noticed something interesting: Its frequency through the coverage of Romney's campaign declined significantly as time went on.

It was as though reporters early in the process saw the polls saying Mormonism might be a problem for Romney. Then, they speculated at what it was about Mormonism that might be offensive to some people, and they came up with polygamy because that is what was available in their memories about Mormonism.

Then, they learned more about the faith and talked about polygamy less and less as time went on, or so it seemed.

I see this trend continuing. These early pieces this time seem more thoughtful. Mormons seem to be asked to comment more frequently by the news media. I think we will see much less of a focus on Mormonism as a cult and on the link to historic polygamy this time.

It says a lot about the news media. Media norms of trying to get it right and to treat people fairly matter over time. Sure, the media sometimes get it wrong and it remains to be seen whether the coverage will be better this time around, but I am seeing efforts to do a better job in the coverage of Mormonism in the initial coverage of this campaign season.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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