Mormon Media Observer: BBC story shows the limits of 'getting both sides.'

Published: Tuesday, April 24 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

But when I made the connection, I understood better why it is that people sometimes get so frustrated with journalists.

My insight came from the tone of the letter. It seemed as though the BBC said they were just doing what journalism does. They seemed to assert their approach was consistent with standard journalism ethics.

Here is what BBC wrote in part: The documentary, BBC said, “heard from former members of the Mormon community who claim the faith is cult-like. These claims were put to representatives of the Church who had the opportunity to respond. We believe the programme approached the subject at hand in a fair and impartial manner, hearing from a wide range of contrasting views, allowing viewers to make up their own minds.”

In short, the BBC said they were being objective and fair — two primary components of being ethical as a journalist. And the BBC accurately reported what was said.

Yet in following these ethical guidelines, the BBC enhanced controversy and took readers away from the central truths embedded in the lives of Latter-day Saints. That is what frustrated me and frustrates consumers of other stories.

Please don’t misunderstand my point. In using the analogy of Flat-Earthers to explain the limits of “getting both sides,” I don’t for a second claim that those opposed to my faith are like those who believe the world is flat. Religion is too much about faith for that kind of assertion.

Now, I do believe I have a serious faith that deserves serious consideration, and I do believe that reporters must be cautious in how they quote ex-Mormons when the agenda of those disaffected is to mock or even distort my faith.

And I would not exempt the church or its members from fair scrutiny.

But these aren't my point. The point is the thing about which BBC was “getting both sides” — whether Mormonism is a cult.

Exactly how can there be an answer to that question? It is a semantic and definitional question, one filled with perceptions, not one really subject to external facts.

Getting both sides of this question gets us no closer to some fundamental truth about Mormonism, does it?

In glibly bringing up the question of Mormonism as cult and “getting both sides of that question” is to enhance controversy and pain. And that controversy moves viewers away from the more important questions of how Latter-day Saints live their lives, of how this faith shapes them, and of what Latter-day Saints actually believe.

So, my issue with the BBC documentary in the end is that journalism must guide us to a deeper truth.

In short, fair-minded journalism needs to again — as it is doing in important quarters — rethink the limits of “getting both sides” as a description for ethical journalism.

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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