In the United States, we are living through what many have termed a “Mormon moment.” A Google search on “Mormon” yields thousands of hits of recent news stories, many of them surrounding the GOP candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
While Mormonism has often been treated fairly by those on the religion beat, a new cadre of journalists has leaped into religion reporting with little background and experience. In addition, the era of “sound-bite” journalism does little to aid public understanding about the complexity of religious issues. Here are some suggestions to help journalists be more accurate and balanced in their reporting about Mormons:
Get the basics right
The title “Mormon church” is a nickname. The proper name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and this name ought to be referenced in news stories about the church and its beliefs, according to the Associated Press Stylebook. Members of the church often refer to themselves as LDS or Latter-day Saints. Read the full entry under “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in the AP Stylebook.
Mormons believe that their church teaches restored truth that was lost or misinterpreted during the ages since Jesus Christ established the ancient church.
Latter-day Saints believe God restored the authority necessary to provide salvation and clarified doctrine, including the nature of God, through a modern prophet, Joseph Smith. Mormons believe Christ is their savior and redeemer.
Based on these beliefs and a commitment to Christ-like living and service to others, Latter-day Saints define themselves as part of Christianity. The church was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in upstate New York and is now led by President Gordon B. Hinckley from Salt Lake City.
There are now more than 13 million members in 176 countries and territories. About 6 million of these are in the United States, making the church the fourth largest Christian denomination in America.
Fairness of the Mormon question
Why is it that the adjectives used in covering the Romney campaign nearly always include “Republican,” “former Massachusetts governor” and “Mormon”? What is the justification for applying the religious label when, for other candidates, their religious affiliation is rarely mentioned? There is a double standard.
Romney’s faith is often framed as a negative, while Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rediscovery of her faith is hailed as a positive. Headlines such as “Can a Mormon be president?” baffle Latter-day Saints, particularly when the faith and religious practices of others remains unmentioned in news reports, let alone headlines.
While mainstream Christian practice and theology may be more familiar to journalists, it’s not fair to use a measuring stick of traditional Christianity to rate Mormon beliefs. Unfortunately, journalists sometimes report less familiar theology with suspicion. To me, that’s bias.
Journalists’ overuse of the Mormon label perpetuates bias and does little to enlighten the public. The implication is that Mormons’ religion defines their participation in the public sphere. Why does this prejudicial labeling in the media persist when many of America’s Mormons serve their nation honorably in their communities and states, the U.S. Congress, the judiciary, the U.S. military, in cabinet level positions, as university presidents and as leaders of Fortune 500 companies?
Get first-hand experience
Along with national media spokesmen, male and female lay LDS Church leaders, missionaries or rank-and-file members are found in every state and region. Local Mormon voices can help bring balance and personal insight to news stories.
A first-hand experience may also be helpful. Sunday services are open to the public. At a congregational meeting, sermons about Christ, faith and values are delivered. Hymns are sung and the sacrament (similar to communion) is passed to members in remembrance of Christ’s atonement. After that meeting, children, youths and adults attend classes for religious instruction. Visitors, including journalists, are welcome to respectfully attend these services.
Allow Mormons to define themselves
It seems odd that many reporters ask traditional Christians to define who Mormons are without interviewing any believers. Journalists should seek members or expert sources for interviews and to respond to anti-Mormon attacks. Of course journalists should ask, “Is the Mormon label or anti-Mormon attack really relevant in the first place?”