Mormon Media Observer: Journalistic bias against Mormons is overrated

Published: Wednesday, May 30 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake Temple in Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah

The Associated Press

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One of the most common questions I have heard over the years about reporters goes something like this: Why is it that journalists identify people as Latter-day Saints when they say something criminal or embarrassing.

I answer two ways: First, such identification, when it happens, can be seen as a compliment. When a Catholic priest or a football coach or a police officer or a school principal commits a crime or does something stupid, it is more newsworthy than when a young day-laborer living down the street does the same thing. Some people have more expected of them given their position.

To the extent that Latter-day Saints are identified, such identifications say more is expected of us.

But the other answer is that journalists, especially professional American ones, actually often don't identify Latter-day Saints when they might have reason to do so.

I have two examples I frequently point toward. One was a story of a person I knew involved in a controversial criminal court case in the nation's capital. The story merited three articles in the Washington Post and it had a small church tie-in, but the Post never identified that the church was the LDS church. I remain grateful to the Post for that decision.

I also studied the case of John Yettaw. Yettaw, you may recall, carried out a the strange plan of visiting or helping Burma's democracy activist Aung San Syu Kii during her house arrest in 2009.

The strange tale involved Yettaw's swim with homemade fins across a lake and prayers and untimately legal trouble for the Nobel laureate, Syu Kii.

The British and European press were all over the fact that this troubled man had been baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the American press rarely, if ever, mentioned it. The story demonstrated ethical behavior by journalists that went largely unnoticed by Latter-day Saints at the time.

Often, my church leaders in Salt Lake City have said words to the effect that journalists by and large treat the church fairly.

Over the years, I didn't pay enough attention to those statements. I have sometimes sensed journalists had an agenda against Latter-day Saints.

To be sure, journalists in the United States are often too secular in their outlook, and they sometimes miss the essence of religion. I quibble with much of what they write and even rebuke some. And a few, mostly columnists who are paid to provoke, do seem to have an agenda that looks anti-Mormon.

Further, writing about something as primal, mysterious and rich as religion is a tall task and mistakes are almost inevitable.

However, I have learned that what my leaders have said is true. Journalists, by and large, do treat Latter-day Saints with fairness and respect, and most desire to do so.

I have now spoken with many journalists about my faith. A few have interviewed me. What I have found, without exception, was a genuine desire to get it right.

Some journalists and journalism scholars have reached out to college colleagues and to me as Latter-day Saints to know how to write about the church with more accuracy and to discover flaws in their own coverage.

It's been gratifying to see these good people trying to show my religion respect.

I thought of all this with three recent articles in the Washington Post and The New York Times.

As for the first, The New York Times last week ran another in a series of articles about Mitt Romney's life as a Latter-day Saint. I am not exaggerating to say that Jodi Kantor's article is the best one I have read of the hundreds I have seen. The LDS faith described in the article, more than any other, seems familiar, seems like the LDS world in which I live.

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