You've heard it called media bias. You've heard it called an "agenda." In journalism, we call it "framing." How a journalist chooses facts, terms and sources all contribute to how a news story gets "framed."
In a perfect world, the framing would be fair, accurate and balanced. Often when journalists frame stories about Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they automatically choose stereotypical frames. An ABC News story in March reminded of a long-line of stereotypical reporting from the media. Lets call it the Trapped by the Mormons frame.
This frame shares similarities to stereotypical portrayals at the turn of the 20th Century, when Mormons were portrayed as conniving and secretive in such as movies as "Trapped by the Mormons" (see Jeff Vice's look at the movie here). Today, the black and white movie is played for comic relief because of its outrageous portrayals and stereotypes of evil men trying to lure women into the practice of polygamy. In modern-day terms it may sound like the Eagle's hit Hotel California: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."
LDS stereotypes still persist, even if they are in a much more sophisticated context. ABC News recently drew on a Mormon stereotype when it reported on depression in Utah. The story started this way: "The still waters of the Great Salt Lake run deep and dark."
The web headline said "Two Studies Find Depression Widespread in Utah: Study Calling Utah Most Depressed, Renews Debate on Root Causes." I am not sure what the Great Salt Lake has do to with this, but certainly the framing of the story draws upon the key words of "deep," "secret," and "dark." These are often the ways the LDS Church has been framed.
In journalism school aspiring journalists are taught to use an anecdotal lead to be a symbol of the story. In this case, it's an extreme anecdote that is far from symbolic of what we in Utah or the LDS Church find commonplace.
The anecdote reads: Take Wendy, a 40-year-old teacher and mother of three from Utah County. To all appearances, she led the perfect life. Just as she was expected to, she went from high school cheerleader to Mormon missionary to wife and mother.
"But life has a funny way of not being perfect," she said. "Three years into my marriage my husband was drinking, using drugs and stepping out on me.
"I knew I was depressed and needed help, but there is a stigma about depression in this area," said Wendy, who asked that ABCNEWS.com not use her last name. "People think it's a sign of weakness. It means you're not capable of being a good mother or wife or teacher."
Wendy's secret is Utah's secret. The postcard image of Utah is a state of gleaming cities, majestic mountains and persistently smiling people. But new research shows a very different picture of the state, a snapshot of suicide and widespread depression.
A recent study by Mental Health America, the country's oldest independent mental health advocacy organization, ranked Utah the most depressed state in the country. Another survey released last week by drug distribution company Express Scripts found that residents of Utah were prescribed antidepressant drugs more than those of any other state and at twice the national average.
It's at about that point in the story that the reporters, in search of the deep, dark and secret, abandon what they should have learned in Statistics 101 and begin making very large leaps of faith (or is it fact?). Yes, Utah appears to have a depression problem, but there are no clear cause-and-effect relationships established between membership in the LDS church and depression. Nothing in the studies (see the original news release from November here) identified religious affiliation or gender, yet ABC news has no problem identifying the problem as an LDS problem and, particularly, a women or girl's issue. Could it be more prevalent among non-Mormons in Utah? Maybe, but we dont know. At the same time, the data dont support the notion of Mormon-inspired gloom over Utah. The only support of this line of reasoning in the story comes from a single opinion of a psychiatrist in Logan. What about the following statement in the story? Why didnt it show up prominently in the lead or headline?
The reason for Utah's mass depression, however, is unknown. "The truth is, we don't know why," said Dr. Ted Wander, spokesman for the Utah Psychiatric Association.
Yet, ABC News writes the story as if it knows exactly why.
Dont get me wrong. Every state including Utah can do much to improve the accessibility of mental health resources. The original intent of the Mental Health America news release was to encourage expanding mental health access. Instead of providing solutions about how to help Americans better understand mental illness and gain better access to resources, ABC practiced a version of "gotcha" journalism that did little to enlighten. Along with perpetuating stereotypes, the story makes people out to be hopeless victims instead of empowering them with ideas about how to help improve their situation.
In the landmark book, "The Elements of Journalism," the authors talk about making news proportional. ABC doesn't make the grade. This story misconstrues the available facts. If you closely examine the story and data, there are many of what journalists call "holes in the story." I like one of the tongue-in-cheek comments to the story:
"What a great, nonbiased article. Now I can't wait to read the followup stories about the number of schizophrenics who are Baptists, bulemics who are Catholics, bipolarics who are Lutheran, Tourette's Syndromics who are Jewish, etc. I look forward to ABC's equally unbiased treatment of these faith groups."
Interestingly enough, the list of depressed states includes Rhode Island, Kentucky and West Virginia. Not unlike a dominant religion in Utah, Rhode Island has a high percentage of Catholics and Kentucky and West Virginia have high percentages of Baptists. Couldn't have ABC News gone just as easily to Rhode Island and write "The waters of Narragansett Bay flow deep and dark" or gone to West Virginia and said "the coal of West Virginia runs deep and dark" and go on to link people's faith to their depression.
Furthermore, when it comes to the use of anti-depressants, could the explanation be as simple as Mormons don't get a boost on coffee all day long and self-medicate with alcohol. Thus, people may turn to prescription medication. We don't know, but the explanation is as plausible as ABC's assumptions.
The article says the "Study Calling Utah Most Depressed, Renews Debate on Root Causes." For the headline writers, writer and graphic artists there was no debate. The only debate, and as one commenter said, was created by publishing the story.
Finally, as a reader calls up the story, a graphic portrays a woman with her head against a wall, combined with an image of a large vial of spilt pills juxtaposed against the Salt Lake Temple. It was the most offensive part of the coverage. Some of the most joyful experiences of Mormons lives take place in the temple, including weddings and worshiping the Savior Jesus Christ. Would ABC produce a picture of a depressed woman with pills juxtaposed against St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York or a Jewish synagogue? This juxtaposition isn't just media bias, it's media bigotry.
Overall, the story represents poor journalism rooted in overstating data and dredging up old stereotypes to support a predetermined frame.