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Positive power: Despite levels of mistrust, media can be a force for good

Published: Thursday, June 14 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Journalist Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe), left, questions Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck)  in Journalist Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe), left, questions Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) in "State of Play." (Universal)

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In 1996, Art Rascon had a life-changing interview with an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rascon, a broadcast journalist who is LDS, was working on a piece for CBS News about the growing phenomenon of religion on the Internet and how religious organizations were using cyberspace to spread their message. After talking with various Christian groups, he was granted an interview with Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve, now a member of the First Presidency of the LDS Church. Rascon recounted their conversation in his 1998 book, "On Assignment: The Stories Behind the Stories."

During their visit, President Eyring repeated many things Rascon had already heard about the negative influence of the media.

Atop a roof, members of the media cover a murder scene in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Mexico in 2008. (Deseret News archives, ) Atop a roof, members of the media cover a murder scene in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Mexico in 2008. (Deseret News archives, )

"The media," Rascon quoted President Eyring in his book, "with its books, magazines, radio and television, is one of the adversary's most powerful tools of spiritual destruction."

"I couldn't argue with his observation," Rascon said.

But President Eyring's next words left a lasting impression on the young journalist.

"Despite the media's degrading values, we must remember something," President Eyring continued. "The media is also the Lord's tool of bringing good into the world. We must utilize that purpose, and it's partly your responsibility to make that happen. The Lord has placed you in a position to influence for a reason."

Rascon said President Eyring went on to say, "The two greatest influences for good in the lives of the children of men in the next century will be in the fields of communication and education."

 (Deseret News archives, ) (Deseret News archives, )

Research and popular culture suggest the public doesn't trust the media, but Rascon and others have seen evidence that the mass media can be a force for good.

"His words had such a tremendous influence on me. They came during a time when I was considering leaving the business because of questionable ethics that are sometimes involved in the business of gathering news and the overall ugliness of the media," said Rascon, now an anchorman with the ABC affiliate in Houston. "What it did to me at that time, and still does to me now, is help me recognize that each of us can play a part in developing a stronger, more morally based media, in whatever way we can do it. That's why I stuck with it. The media overall has a tremendous influence, whether for good or evil, and we can do our part in trying to make it a good thing."

The negative media

In the 1994 Disney film "Iron Will," lead character Will Stoneman physically pummels reporter Harry Kingsley for using him and his family to sell newspapers and for printing pictures that would make his mother worry.

Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, an Area Seventy, poses with Sister Barbara Thompson, Sister Elaine S. Dalton and Sister Cheryl A. Esplin in Houston. After playing football at BYU and in the NFL, Elder Nielsen worked as a sports broadcaster. (Deseret News archives, ) Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, an Area Seventy, poses with Sister Barbara Thompson, Sister Elaine S. Dalton and Sister Cheryl A. Esplin in Houston. After playing football at BYU and in the NFL, Elder Nielsen worked as a sports broadcaster. (Deseret News archives, )

In the 2011 movie "Soul Surfer," after 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton loses her arm in a shark attack, filmmakers portray the descent of the press as a second shark attack because "it thrust them into the limelight and changed their lives," producer David Blackwell said in a 2011 interview with Variety Magazine.

Even when Russell Crowe saved the day as an investigative reporter in the 2009 film "State of Play," he's depicted as a long-haired newshound who practices questionable ethics and has a landfill for a desk.

Such media portrayals reflect some accurate perceptions, according to research.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has tracked views of press performance since 1985. Overall ratings are heavily negative, according to a 2011 study. The research shows that 66 percent of Americans say news stories are often inaccurate, 77 percent think news organizations tend to favor one side, and 80 percent say powerful people and organizations often influence news organizations.

Art Rascon (Deseret News archives, ) Art Rascon (Deseret News archives, )

In his book, "Standing for Something," late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed his views on the negativity of the news media. While some journalists are masters of the written and spoken word, he wrote, many carry a cynical attitude.

"It is impossible to read the columns or listen to the commentaries without sensing that there is a terrible ailment of gloom in this land. We are constantly fed a steady and sour diet of pessimism, faultfinding, second-guessing and evil speaking one of another. The pathetic fact is, negativism sells," President Hinckley wrote. "The attitude of many is negative. With studied art, they pour out their vinegar of invective and anger, judging all as if all wisdom belonged to them. Under the guise of analysis and informed opinion, they frequently dwell on their subjects' failings rather than their strengths. If we took such pundits seriously, we might think the whole nation and indeed the whole world was going down the drain. There have been times when a particularly heavy dose of such cynicism has caused me to reflect that surely this is the age and place of the gifted pickle sucker!"

Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor talks to a Haitian boy in Port-au-Prince while reporting on relief efforts after a massive earthquake.   Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor talks to a Haitian boy in Port-au-Prince while reporting on relief efforts after a massive earthquake. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archives) Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor talks to a Haitian boy in Port-au-Prince while reporting on relief efforts after a massive earthquake. Deseret News reporter Scott Taylor talks to a Haitian boy in Port-au-Prince while reporting on relief efforts after a massive earthquake. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archives)

While acknowledging that problems and challenges are a part of life, a steady diet of negative news can influence individual attitudes, outlooks and values, President Hinckley said.

"I am not suggesting that our conversation be all sweetness and honey," he wrote. "What I am suggesting is that we have had missing from our society a buoyant spirit of optimism."

Good news

The compelling stories are out there, Rascon said.

"It's a fact that there are wonderful, heartwarming and inspiring stories out there. They happen every day, no question," the veteran broadcaster said. "It's a matter of finding them."

Rascon recalled covering a story in Nicaragua in 1998 and finding dozens of families with hundreds of children living in a large city dump site. "The massive pile of garbage was literally their source of life," he said.

A new story emerged from the trash. He related an account of the kids at the dump and their struggle to survive. The story changed lives.

"The video was reproduced hundreds of times and sent to organizations. It ignited this amazing fervor of trying to help these kids," Rascon said. "As a result, millions of dollars came in and the kids now have places to live, schools to attend and teachers who care about them. To see these kids yanked from dump sites and being educated as a result of that initial story, I'm just grateful I was able to play a small role."

In 1995, The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., printed a feature story about Bill Porter, a man born with cerebral palsy but who supported himself as a door-to-door salesman. The story of Porter's optimistic determination captured national media attention and inspired millions.

"In my 17 years as a reporter, no story has ever produced this kind of response," Oregonian reporter Tom Hallman Jr. wrote in a 2007 retrospective.

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof recently wrote a piece that educated readers about fistula, a childbirth injury that causes females to leak urine or feces continuously through the vagina. The problem plagues more than two million worldwide. Kristof told the incredible story of an Ethiopian woman and the doctor who helped change her life. Readers responded with contributions and helped open a hospital in Danja, Niger.

Now doctors are trying to raise $500,000 in annual operating costs so the hospital can perform up to 1,000 fistula repairs a year (for more information, visit www.fistulafoundation.org).

Journalist Kevin Fagan has reported extensively on homeless issues in San Francisco in the last decade. His efforts as a "solution journalist" have led to the creation of new social programs, reunited families and influenced social change. It's easier to write about the problems rather than what's working, Fagan said.

"It's important to write about problems, but it's not the only thing to write about," Fagan said in an interview with Rachel Signer of dowser.org. "There's an institutional or industrial attitude that writing happy stories is sappy. They are seen as 'puff pieces.' The trick is … writing about something that's useful and informative rather than puffy and dippy."

For eight days in 2010, Deseret News journalist Scott Taylor and photographer Jeff Allred covered post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, documenting the delivery of life-saving food, water, and blankets from the LDS Church to a community hospital in Port-au-Prince. They followed the work of volunteer LDS physicians and nurses who traveled to Haiti to provide critical medical care. Taylor's articles describe how church meetinghouses were converted into first aid clinics while the grounds outside the chapels became spiritual and temporal shelters for Haitians who had lost their homes. Despite the tragedy, Taylor came away uplifted.

"Yes, we missed attending Sunday church meetings," Taylor said in Church News retrospective. "But we didn't miss witnessing true religion in action."

Elder Gifford Nielsen, an Area Seventy, former NFL quarterback and sports broadcaster, said the mass media can be a tremendous friend to truth and goodness. When information about the LDS Church is accurately reported, it can reach many more people than two missionaries going door to door. He cited recent articles in the Houston Chronicle and Washington Post as examples.

"The power of the media can be beneficial to the growth of the church, and the brethren understand that. That's why I think you are seeing such an emphasis on church websites and other media tools. Look at the Bible videos," Elder Nielsen said. "You are having people go to the media like never before."

It's all about making a difference in people's lives by sharing stories that promote faith, hope and charity, Rascon summarized.

"What I try to gather from these places I report from are those stories that will somehow reach the public in a different way and be motivating and inspiring," he said. "That's my hope, that's my dream."

Email: ttoone@desnews.com

Twitter: tbtoone

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