I spent the weekend in New York at a conference I co-organized on Mormonism and American politics. We had two days of stimulating papers and presentations, an overview of which you can read here. One of my favorite talks was by veteran religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack, who has been covering Mormonism (and every other faith) for years for the Salt Lake Tribune and had some advice for journalists who suddenly find themselves trying to understand Mormonism this year during the Romney campaign.
Peggy’s basic thesis was that many reporters cover Mormonism using a basic paradigm taken from covering Protestantism, and fail to appreciate important differences. With Peggy’s permission, here are the top six mistakes journalists make:
- Misunderstanding or misusing unique Mormon vocabulary. Latter-day Saints have their own lexicon that can take some getting used to. Sunday sermons are called “talks.” An astonishing number of people are called “president,” making it difficult for outside reporters. Is a branch president higher or lower than a stake president? What about a district president? A mission president? An elders’ quorum president? A deacons’ quorum president? There ought to be a flow chart.
- Misusing common vocabulary words that mean something different to Mormons than they do to Protestants. In addition to their own language mentioned above, Mormons’ adopted religious words don’t necessarily correspond to their Protestant counterparts. An LDS seminary is not the same as studying for the ministry. An “elder” can be 19 years old; a 15-year-old boy can be a priest; and a missionary serves for a limited time. Missionary service is not a career.
- Misunderstanding the relationship between LDS local leaders and the general hierarchy in Salt Lake City. Local leaders are always in flux, a fact that is hard for reporters to understand. Reporters this year have made a big deal of Romney being a “high priest” in the LDS Church, not realizing that a high priest is anyone who has ever served in a bishopric, which is tens of thousands of people. (And, I would add, any priesthood holder who gets old. After a while they get advanced to the title whether they’ve served as a local leader or not.)
- Presuming that an LDS bishop has the same power or role as a Protestant minister. A Mormon bishop is essentially an administrator who does not give sermons. He holds a full-time job elsewhere (butcher, baker, candlestick maker, venture capitalist) and is not paid for being a bishop. He usually only serves for a few years, not for life. Then someone else is appointed from within the congregation.
- Mistaking folk doctrines for core beliefs. “This is especially obvious in those journalists who use the Book of Mormon musical as a primary source,” Peggy said. Even Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has claimed twice that Mormons don’t drink caffeine (which she subsequently corrected at Peggy’s request). Granted, it can be difficult to ferret out what are actual core doctrines and what are just individual members’ interpretations, but it’s important to try.
- Treating all former Mormons as whistleblowers who promise to reveal untold truths. Former Mormons do have important personal stories to tell, but these are rarely balanced by the equally important personal stories that believing Latter-day Saints have to tell. And merely having a personal story, whether pro or con, does not instantly make any source an expert on a religion. Peggy expressed concern that “the New York Times and CNN seem to have given a platform to every former Mormon with a book.”
Peggy also noted that most mainline Protestants align with congregations that fit their political and social views, so journalists automatically assume that Mormons can do the same thing. It’s hard for them to understand Mormons who stay within the faith and meet the change from within.
Jana Riess is the author of Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor and several other books. She is currently immersed in a multiyear Twitter project called The Twible. (It’s the Bible, now with 68% more humor!) Jana writes for RNS.