How Mormon Leaders Taught Me To Forgive Media For Bungling Stories About Religion

How Mormon Leaders Taught Me To Forgive Media For Bungling Stories About Religion

I get frustrated with how poorly news media often cover the internal lives of religious believers and how distorted faith often becomes in news stories.
Lane Williams

Let me tell you about my friend, Ron. For 52 years, with the exception of an 18-month mission to Australia, Ron has visited a neighbor family at least monthly. He quietly helps with yardwork and sometimes negotiates family issues. He delivers religious messages and prays with families, some of whom have not shared his faith.

He watched over a family when the father died, when the mother lay in a hospital bed, and when a relative sat in. I have seen him break down in tears describing his affection.

Ron is a good neighbor and may well have done much of this service regardless. Believing in Jesus Christ has that kind of effect on people. But Ron also did it because those decades ago, he received a home-teaching assignment.

Home-teaching is a remarkable program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church. All men receive assignments to each minister to a handful of families each month. They deliver spiritual messages and attend to temporal and spiritual needs. Women also receive assignments to visit other women in the congregation monthly—they visit-teach.

To be sure, most don’t serve one family for 52 years, as Ron has done, and many don’t fully follow the expectation of monthly visits in busy lives. But in many units around the church the most vulnerable, such as widows and the poor, receive visits from a caring, competent church member each month.

I have been blessed through this program. When my father died when I was 10, Bud Johnson rarely missed a month and helped me on my Scouting trail. In adulthood, I have met struggling immigrants in large cities and prayed with poor and ill folks in rural America. I am no Ron, but I have tried to serve, and the humility and humanity I experience in these visits has changed me.

Most Media Don’t Cover This Kind of Thing

Why am I writing about home-teaching? Because my guess is most Americans have never heard of it. I think most Americans don’t know a lot of things about Mormons. They seem to miss what I really believe and how I really live, even as I would share those things.

Strike up another complaint about the nation’s news media—the disappointing ways it distorts religion and neglects the inner life of religious believers in America. I am well aware this journalistic affliction applies well beyond my faith. Those distortions affect how Americans see and understand one another.

For several years as a journalism professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, I have studied the relationship between the news media and religion. Through observation and systematic research, I’ve wondered: What have media taught people about Mormonism? How well have they done covering my faith?

Here is what I saw: Media teach that Mormons used to believe in polygamy, even though the practice ended more than a century ago. Media teach that Catholics and Protestants disagree with Latter-day Saints’ definition of the Trinity. Media teach that Latter-day Saints believe in a traditional definition of marriage—between one man and one woman—while the nation is going in a different direction.

Media teach that Mormons, like Catholics, have limited priesthood leadership to males, again while the world moves in different ways. Heavens, the news media seem to convey that Mormons are secretive (I beg to differ), and suggest something vaguely weird about our beliefs and us.

The Latest Example: Thomas Monson’s NYT Obituary

Not just what is taught explicitly, but also what gets neglected also shapes misunderstanding. Most people probably wouldn’t have learned much of anything from media about why I believe the Book of Mormon and what it teaches. Most people probably have learned little about how I understand the meaning of life and communicate with God. Most learn little about how and why I believe so deeply what I do.

Given my academic research, I get frustrated with how poorly news media often covers the internal lives of religious believers and how distorted the faith often becomes in news stories. All of those emotions came into focus again this week when The New York Times wrote an obituary of Thomas S. Monson, the church’s 16th president, whose long life of service and public teaching inspired millions of Latter-day Saints for more than 50 years. His funeral was Friday.

The Times obit focused mostly on public controversies and decisions Monson and the church made amid the culture war of the last 10 years. To many Latter-day Saints, it seemed the Times was more balanced in its treatment of Fidel Castro and Hugh Hefner than with this obituary.

Nearly 200,000 people have signed an online petition asking the Times to apologize. The Times, for its part, has written a response, defending much of the obituary, but suggesting the newspaper might have done a little more to show Monson’s more private side.

Monson’s service was legendary. As a 22-year-old bishop of an LDS ward, Monson took vacation time each winter and visited some 80 widows in his religious unit, a ward. When church responsibilities grew, he found time to speak at each widow’s funeral in later years.

His teachings quietly resonated with most Latter-day Saints: “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.” “We must develop the capacity to see men not as they are at present but as they may become.” “Find someone who is having a hard time, or is ill, or lonely, and do something for him or her.”

I found none of that teaching or human example in the New York Times obituary, and that saddened me. I have no quibble with those friends who petitioned and told the Times how they felt. That message is important for journalists to hear. But Monson’s life of interaction and patience suggests an additional path for me. I might yet give the media the benefit of some doubt.

Over Time, Reporting Has Improved a Lot

My scholarly work shows that writing about Mormonism is so much kinder than decades ago. Prominent news media then compared my faith to a cancer. Some small-time publishers advocated literal violence. I have little doubt that media voices helped lead to terrible persecution that left Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, murdered and pushed his followers toward their great exodus to Utah.

None of that holds today. I have met no journalists today who wish to distort my faith deliberately. One or two have reached out to me on ways to improve. Indeed, you can easily find news stories very favorable to Mormons and Mormonism.

The problems of religion coverage arise out of ignorance and difficulty, not malice.

Recent history also shows media can improve, so I suspect journalists will also learn from this obituary experience. One of my studies suggested that Mormonism, as covered in 2012 when Mitt Romney was nominated to run for U.S. president, compared with Mormonism as covered in 2008 when Romney first ran, grew more nuanced, favorable to the faith , and realistic.

Furthermore, the problems of religion coverage arise out of ignorance and difficulty, not malice. NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet said recently that media simply don’t get religion. While such a statement is a personal indictment, it doesn’t mean journalists don’t try. And I take Baquet to mean national journalists and media executives wish to improve. In short, I can easily expect too much of journalists.

So while I wish the Times had treated Monson better, I would heed Monson’s example of generosity. Journalists still deserve my goodwill and good faith. Like us religious seekers, most journalists I know strive to find truth as they can. Of course they fall short, but so do I.

As Monson once said, “As we move toward the future, we must not neglect the lessons of the past. Our Heavenly Father gave His Son. The Son of God gave His life. We are asked by them to give our lives, as it were, in their divine service. Will you? Will I? Will we? There are lessons to be taught, there are kind deeds to be done, there are souls to be saved. Let us remember the counsel of King Benjamin: ‘When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.’ Reach out to rescue those who need your help. Lift such to the higher road and the better way.”

It’s an idea my friend Ron learned long ago, and a lesson I wish to live by. Thank you, President Monson.

Dr. Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho. His academic research covers the intersection of media and religion. He loves hiking in Yellowstone National Park and spending time with his wife, Laurie, and their four children.

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