Mormon Media Observer: A look at the media's use of 'cult' in LDS coverage
Quick. Don't think of a pink, squishy, seven-foot octopus.
Really. Don't think of an octopus.
It's impossible, really, to not think of an octopus when you read such sentences.
That's one of the insights into scholar Frank Luntz's book called "Don't Think of an Elephant!"
Luntz is a scholar of what is known as framing theory — the concept that you can powerfully shape perceptions of a public policy or of a person or organization through framing. Sometimes even mentioning something along with the word "not" can have powerful effects.
Hence, one of my biggest criticisms of the news coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mainstream press has been that it seems to use the word cult in describing the church too often. Cult is a powerful frame, one that conveys secrecy, oddity and vague danger.
Just this week, I looked at in-depth coverage of the LDS Church during the first two years of the current campaign of Gov. Mitt Romney as covered in the New York Times, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
Twenty-one percent of the articles in my little study used the term cult — one-third more than articles that referenced Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (This proportion is little changed from the proportion of this term in the campaign four years ago.)
Now, to be sure, most of these references to "cult" were comprised of something like "some evangelicals consider Mormonism a cult." The reporters, if you will, aren't saying directly that Mormons are cult members.
Nevertheless, framing theory suggests that merely bringing up a concept activates knowledge pathways much as it is essentially impossible to not think of an octopus when someone says "don't think of an octopus."
This week, the Rev. Billy Graham, not long after meeting with Gov. Romney, took Mormonism off the list of religions he considered a cult, many news sources said.
Not surprisingly, this is the biggest LDS story of the week.
Still, I recognize that the evangelical movement likely means cult not in a condescending way. They seem to wish to define what they believe constitutes appropriate doctrine. This is a way of demarcation. And, frankly, I don't perceive most mean harm to me by its use.
For example, I get frustrated when polygamists in Texas call themselves Mormon — which is their right, of course. Frankly, I think it muddies my identity in some ways. Hence, I think I understand why it is important to some Christians to make a clear demarcation of their identity by using the word cult to describe my faith. It's about them, not me.
Of course, it does hurt me to say cult, and I wish they would stop.
So, thanks are in order to the Rev. Billy Graham for dropping the use of the word cult in his description of the Latter-day Saints. I believe it is one Christian trying to do as Christ would — treat others as each would wish to be treated. It is a significant moment. However it happened, I am grateful.
And it is a legitimate news story.
That having been said, the news media's frequent use of the word cult still bothers me. There are ways to describe the differences between Latter-day Saints and evangelical Christians without using the word cult — how about something more neutral such as saying, "evangelicals and Mormons disagree about the nature of God."
A few months ago, I went online and contrasted two identical surveys given four years apart by the Pew charitable trusts that outlined Americans' feelings about the Latter-day Saints. The responses to the survey were almost identical between the years — except in one way.
When Pew asked respondents to share what one word came to their minds when the word Mormon was said, in the second survey, given late last year, the word cult showed up about 40 percent more often than it did four years earlier.
I can only surmise that the news media's frequent use of the term explains this growth.
If cult is no longer appropriate for a Christian like the Rev. Graham, I believe it's no longer appropriate for media to use it either.
Thanks to the good reverend and his son Franklin for making this change.
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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