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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) Salt Lake Temple in Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah (The Associated Press)

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.

It is the LDS life of the Sunday School teacher and of the person who prays.

One of the most striking things between the run of George Romney in 1967 and 1968 and his son more than four decades later is how George was open about his religion. Mitt Romney, of course, avoids much public talk about faith.

When George Romney first ran for governor and again when he ran for president, he said publicly that he had fasted and prayed about his decision to run for office and had felt as though his prayers were answered.

Kantor's piece confirms that Mitt Romney did, too, and, in so doing, did what most Latter-day Saints would.

Latter-day Saints pray over decisions, seeking divine revelation. Elder Boyd K. Packer has said to understand Latter-day Saints, people need to understand they believe in revelation.

Here is a memorable quote from the article:

"Mr. Romney also prays before taking action on decisions he has already made, asking for divine reassurance, a feeling that he is 'united with the powers above,' Dr. Hassell said. Sometimes Mr. Romney would report that even though he had made a decision on the merits, prayer had changed his mind. 'Even though rationally this looks like the thing to do, I just have a feeling we shouldn’t do it,' he would say, according to Grant Bennett, another friend and church leader.

"Mr. Romney has also asked for divine sustenance during his political runs. The night before he declared his candidacy for governor, he and his family prayed at home with Gloria White-Hammond and Ray Hammond, friends and pastors of a Boston-area African Methodist Episcopal church.

"His earlier failed run for United States Senate had all been part of God’s plan, Mrs. Romney told Ms. White-Hammond around that time. Mr. Romney had lost, but 'just because God says for you to do something doesn’t mean the outcome is going to be what you want it to be,' Ms. White-Hammond remembered Mrs. Romney saying."

This is about a Latter-day Saint as it gets.

The second article I saw doesn't seem fair-minded at first blush. The Washington Post ran an article about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The article had slim news value — the Arkansas primary was last week and the Baker-Fancher Party murdered by the militia in sourthern Utah came from Arkansas. Understandably, the Post article received considerable scorn from Republicans for its decision to run with the story in the first place.

Yet, when I first read it, I compared it in my mind with earlier articles I have seen on the topic wherein journalists have presented the massacre in conspiratorial terms, implying that the massacre was under Brigham Young's order, which it wasn't, or somehow representative of the history of the faith.

This article suggested a broader picture — that it was a "quirk," terrible as it was. The article even had the insight to point out that Mitt Romney's prominent LDS ancestor, Parley P. Pratt, was murdered in Arkansas, a connection few reporters make.

I thought the article's timing a little forced, but, to the extent that editors thought it needed to be run, it was the most fair-minded treatment of the topic I have seen — a sign reporters are working harder to treat the Latter-day Saints with respect as these years go by.

Last was an article in the New York Times about how conflicted black Latter-day Saints feel in choosing whether to vote for the first black president, President Barack Obama, or the first Latter-day Saint nominee, Gov. Romney.

I was thoroughly impressed by the stories told. I learned much. I thought the article went a long ways to debunking stereotypes about the church and about African-Americans. The African-American Latter-day Saints interviewed are accomplished, interesting people. I hope to be a better Latter-day Saint and less judging as a direct result of this piece.

It made a subtle point without making it directly. Many African-Americans see something useful in this faith — and that fact gives pause to the idea that my LDS faith is filled with racists.

So, there are many people who may feel that journalists are biased against Latter-day Saints.

Yes, journalists struggle to get it right. Yes, they face unusual challenges in writing on religion. And, yes, they make mistakes.

But deliberately biased? It's rare. My personal experience and these three articles this week suggest the accusation that there is an overt bias against Mormonism in the press is an overrated assertion at best and flat-out wrong at worst.

In general, I have learned journalists do try their best to treat us Mormons very well. We should be grateful.

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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