Mormon Media Observer: Relief Society visiting teaching makes the news

Published: Tuesday, May 15 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

When Mitt Romney last ran for president, I studied, as part of one of those boring doctoral dissertations, the way in which his faith — my faith — was covered by the national press from 2006 to 2008.

I studied more than 200 articles in depth, categorizing each across more than 20 dimensions. I evaluated the favorability of each article and the portrayal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — all pretty standard stuff in the social science research method called content analysis.

In addition, I read scores of other new articles about the faith as I studied.

So, I observed in detail how Latter-day Saints were covered.

A rich, fair-minded but generally unfavorable portrayal of the church emerged from those articles, according to my analysis.

I quibble even now about parts of the coverage, such as the frequent mention of polygamy and the regular questions of whether the LDS Church is a cult or whether it is even a Christian religion.

But near the top of my list of complaints is this: I never found in those hundreds of articles — to the extent that memory serves — any mention of two of the central practices of my experience as a Latter-day Saint: home teaching and visiting teaching.

To the uninitiated, the idea of home teaching is that priesthood men visit each Latter-day Saint family once per month. The women also visit women separately.

These visitors pray, teach and handle minor needs. There's a lawn mower in my garage that I am paying attention to because of home teaching.

When home teaching works well, and it often does, pain is alleviated, class boundaries are crossed, hunger is met and souls are saved.

For me, my experiences home teaching are among the richest of my life as a Latter-day Saint.

Whether it was watching the consistent visits of Bud Johnson after my father died, whether it was learning as a 14-year-old from the Bandleys as I visited them, whether it was visiting the Trouilliers in Maryland or more recently whether it was learning from gentle Dennis and Sandra Reid, I am so grateful for home teaching and what it does for those who teach and for those taught.

I love it.

Well, someone mentioned visiting teaching last week.

In a terrific, kind article in the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, reporter Collette Jenkins described the fact that Latter-day Saint women visit one another each month — even using the name visiting teaching.

It’s only one part of a fine article. In it, it shows Latter-day Saint youths attending early morning seminary.

It talks of ward organizations and ward activities. It shows how devoted Latter-day Saints often are helping the poor through bishops' storehouses.

In short, it does what the best articles about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do — it lets us tell our own stories.

Richard Bushman once said that reading articles about the church is sometimes much like looking at your image in an old funhouse mirror — you recognize yourself, but it's distorted in important ways.

Part of the reason for that distortion is that some reporters have neglected the opportunity to talk with Latter-day Saints.

I have not watched the coverage of the Latter-day Saints during this campaign with nearly the same level of detail as I did the campaign four years ago (I mean, who wants to write a second dissertation?), but my careful impressions are that the coverage has improved.

More positive facets of the faith have emerged.

Most of all, I think I see more Latter-day Saints being asked to talk about their faith. Things like visiting teaching have emerged with a little more frequency.

Kudos to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Akron Beacon Journal for this generous article.

I thank it for mentioning visiting teaching. These programs of visiting each LDS home are part a religious practice that captures what the Latter-day Saint movement is all about. I wish to see more such articles.

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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