Stop for a minute and ask what it is that the news media teaches about what we Latter-day Saints believe.
Chances are each article is a little different. Chances are some elements of our faith are highlighted over others because of the needs of an article. Often, chances are the reporting seems mostly accurate, but something, especially in the aggregate, seems missing. It's like looking at yourself in an old fun-house mirror — you can recognize yourself, but the view is distorted.
I thought of the funhouse mirror — an analogy I borrow from the great LDS scholar Richard Bushman, who used it in another context — as I read in detail Pew's new, much-reported study on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — of how we Latter-day Saints view ourselves.
Now, I didn't think Pew distorted our beliefs. The contrary. It is a groundbreaking and fascinating study in most respects. This excellence isn't surprising from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a group which routinely does some of the best scholarly work about religion. (I read this interesting musing on this study that is worth thinking about in making sense of the study's meaning, by the way.)
I thought of how the results of this study compare with the results of a second recent Pew study done on the national perception of Mormons — one that studied how Latter-day Saints are viewed by those not sharing the faith across the nation in contrast to how they were viewed four years ago.
In one of its questions, Pew uses a specific survey technique. It asks respondents to give the first word or two that comes to mind in association the word Mormon.
To my knowledge, Pew has asked this question three times in its research on Mormonism — once in 2007 to the a random sample of Americans, a second time in 2011 to a random sample of Americans and a third time to Latter-day Saints, as part of this newest survey. The question was: "Please tell me what one word best describes Mormons. Tell me just the one best word that comes to mind."
For Latter-day Saints, the most frequent mention they used in response to this question was something about Jesus Christ, with faith and family second.
When Pew asked the same question of America at large, the number one answer, by far, was "cult." Though cult was the second-most popular answer in 2007, the frequency with which people are saying cult in 2011 year grew by roughly 20 percent. Indeed, just under 5 percent used the word "cult" in referencing Mormons with this survey question.
In my comparisons between Pew's survey of public perceptions of Latter-day Saints in 2007 and 2011, this growth of the perception of a cult is the most striking change.
The most interesting contrast between the two studies is how little views of Latter-day Saints have changed in the last four years, given that these years have marked some of the most intense conversation about our faith in the last century.
For example, people's perceptions of Mormons as Christians seems fixed — almost exactly the same percentage believe we are Christian as did four years ago. Similarly, the number who believe our religion is different from theirs remains about the same. Favorability, in essence, is little changed.
But in these one-word responses, not only is there a wider variety of responses, there seems to me a greater frequency of responses like "confused," "strange," "odd" and "weird." I sense an increase in these type of unfavorable responses.
I conclude that this change, such as it is, may be because of media coverage of Mormonism in important respects.
For my research into Mormons and the media, I have read hundreds of stories about Mormonism during the campaign of Mitt Romney in 2007-2008. Among the many things I observed, one of them was how the church was portrayed in ways that made it appear out of the mainstream. Furthermore, there was no one consistent portrayal of Mormonism in the press.
In fairness, the media rarely got something factually wrong.
But in the inconsistent portrayals across media and in the unusual emphasis on what makes the church appear out of the mainstream, the coverage distorted my beliefs. It created a fun-house mirror effect.
Though reporters rarely said "Mormonism is a cult," they did frequently write things like "Mormonism is seen as a cult by other religions." (I found it in about 25 percent of the articles in my research.) In so doing, I believe reporters primed into the minds of audiences the supposed cult-like nature of LDS beliefs.
This priming of Mormons as cults or "odd" may be the most important influence of the news media on the small changes in public perceptions of Latter-day Saints, and, thereby, led to this 20 percent increase in mentions of "cult."
(To be fair, this kind of connection and assertion needs much more academic scholarship to verify it.)
Meanwhile, we Latter-day Saints keep talking about Jesus, and keep paying our tithing, as the Pew study shows. Perhaps the media coverage of this groundbreaking study will help to combat the fun-house mirror effect.
To learn more about the survey results and how Latter-day Saints responded to questions about everything from missionary service to polygamy, see this series of articles about "Mormons in America."
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.