Mormon Media Observer: Temple coverage leads to some butterflies

Published: Monday, April 16 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Butterflies can teach you a lot about the news media, if you let them.

This week, as I studied some of the interesting coverage of the construction and open house for the beautiful new temple near Kansas City, I saw lots of blog posts about butterflies. Hang with me for a minute as I explain why.

What I was interested in was how frequently the news media reported on the remarkable historical context of the LDS Church in the Kansas City region. So I used the Google function and looked for Boggs and Mormon.

I figured some articles might mention Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs, who in 1838 wrote some of the most infamous words in American history: "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace."

I did find the Associated Press' wonderful story on the history of the church in the Kansas City region. I also liked the piece in the Kansas City Star — which also had some solid history. However, some reporters seemed to miss the history in favor of stories focused on more recent events or on details of the open house itself. This was true of CNN's interesting report on the new temple.

So instead of finding an abundance of articles about the history of Mormons in Missouri, I found several blog postings — including one in the New York Times — about a new study about the Mormon fritillary butterfly.

Evidently, when snow melts early, a plant dies in the spring frost, and the lack of vital nectar kills the caterpillar of the Mormon fritillary butterfly. The whole thing is, well, sort of a cautionary tale about climate or something. One of the study's authors was Carol L. Boggs. Hence, Mormon and Boggs.

I don't rebuke reporters for sometimes missing the history of Latter-day Saints in Missouri to the extent they have — though a few more stories would have been nice. Instead, it shows me how challenged the press always is to tell stories.

Journalists drop into cities with a story to write. Often, they have a few hours to research something they've never heard of before. Because they may lack expertise, they likely look to recent controversies or press releases about events. In short, they do the best they can and move on.

It seems as though this is what has happened in some of the coverage of the Kansas City Temple. On balance, however, the coverage is quite positive and fair-minded. I'm grateful.

Still, it's all enough to make you wonder how much context is missed in other news stories about religious events.

Be that as it may, what a story this is. Though many groups in American history have suffered persecution, some worse even than the Latter-day Saints, the extermination order remains among the most remarkable abuses of government power in the nation's history.

In addition, there's the dramatic retreat across Missouri to the kindness of Quincy, Illinois, while Joseph Smith languished in Liberty Jail. There's the passionate attempts to create a Zion. There's Haun's Mill.

My personal favorite is the story of Missourian Alexander Doniphan, who was ordered by his commander, Gen. Samuel Lucas, to execute Joseph Smith for treason, following a summary trial after the capture of Far West.

Doniphan bravely refused. He reportedly told Lucas, "It is cold blooded murder. I will not obey your order. … (I)f you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God."

I am no great expert on world history, yet I am aware that communities of religious believers sometimes remember with longing the cities from whence they were driven and nurture the lingering sorrow of religious sanctuaries from whence they went and suffered. Remembrances and pain cross generations and centuries. They fuel festering resentment.

Yet, something of a miracle has happened near the Missouri River. The Latter-day Saints have returned in strength to Clay County. They've built a temple near Independence. Their Missouri neighbors have welcomed them in peace and kindness. Rather than conflict, there seems a generous embrace.

That is among the most important stories of this new temple on the American plains. And its one for everyone to celebrate.

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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