When you spend much time studying coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its relationship with the news media, you quickly realize that the church has always been in the news.
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon was reported on — in mocking tones — by a newspaper in Palmyra, N.Y., before it was even published.
A couple of years later, the great 19th century journalist James Gordon Bennett traveled up the Erie Canal to Palmyra and implied that church members, who had just moved as a group to Kirtland, Ohio, were already well-known. Membership numbered in the hundreds when Bennett wrote.
Scores of newspapers reported on the death of Joseph Smith. Important publications covered the church members' trek to the West. Many news outlets and writers heaped persecution on members in the late 19th century. Then, in the 20th century, several very positive articles emerged. And there was the Salt Lake City Olympics.
In a sense, it’s been one long Mormon Moment.
Still, it’s hard to imagine anything to compare with the remarkable attention given to the LDS Church in the last couple of years.
I decided to take a stab at understanding the full breadth of the church’s coverage around the world over the last year.
Though there are severe limitations to tallies generated by the professional database Lexis-Nexis, it remains among the better ways to measure overall coverage of given words and topics.
Therefore, using Lexis-Nexis, here is what I found about the number of articles using the word Mormon in the press over recent months.
• Since June 1 of last year, there have been 13,116 articles in the U.S. press.
• Nearly 2,000 articles in the foreign language press.
• More than 2,500 U.S. television programs in the last year.
• The New York Times has had more than 400 articles. (That number exceeds 700 if you include the Times blog posts.)
• In the last six months, more than 2,700 articles in the English-language press outside of the United States, including nearly 100 mentions in the Times of London.
• Articles in English-language papers have spread across the world, from the Japan Times to Al-Arabiya to the Hindustan Times.
• The Washington Post has had more than 300 articles in the last year.
• The Associated Press has sent more than 500, depending on how you count AP stories.
• Finally, church members and Utahns are making a major contribution to the national conversation. Just under 30 percent of the news stories that mention Mormon in the national press come from either the Deseret News or from the Salt Lake Tribune.
With some extrapolation, if you tally the international press in English, the non-English publications, the U.S. news articles and TV transcripts, the number of Momron mentions comes in at somewhere around 23,000 in the last year.
And this is only from, as Lexis-Nexis chooses to define it, the mainstream press. Blogs and personal postings are not included in this tally.
What a moment.
To be sure, much of the coverage includes single mentions. Mentions include articles on “The Book of Mormon” Broadway musical, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the coverage of the church is rich, varied and filled with examples — good and bad — of how to cover the church. People who pay any attention at all will learn a great deal.
Indeed, I continue to learn new things.
For example, in my research, I learned that Darrell Issa, the chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was raised by an LDS mother.
I have also been inspired. To take another example, Dr. Clayton M. Christensen, the LDS Church member who teaches at the Harvard Business School, appeared on PBS’ “Charlie Rose” show earlier this year to talk about his new book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”
In the interview, Christensen described a youthful decision to obey the Sabbath day, even though it meant missing a championship basketball game in England. It was a remarkable decision shared in a remarkable interview.
Christensen said this on national TV: “And I looked back on that and, you know, it was just one Sunday in thousands of Sundays in my life, and surely just that once it would have been all right. It turns out that my whole life has been an unending stream of extenuating circumstances. And if I had gone over that once, the next time it comes up, I have to make the decision again and then again and then again. And if we make our decisions about whether we’ll hold to our standards on a case-by-case basis, there will always be a time when we say you’re right, just this once and I do it.”
Yes, the church has had images of one long Mormon Moment throughout its history, but its hard not to be astonished at the breadth, depth and beauty of coverage happening now.
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.