When I was a youth (pre-1978), a magazine article about the Church hit the newsstands in Washington D.C., and we, local members, were ecstatic with what we considered great coverage of the Church. So I was very surprised at the negative reaction of the missionaries in our ward. It seems that the article had a few negative things to say that we thought were minor (and accurate), and the missionaries felt were major derogatory statements that put the Church in a bad light.
While the situation isn’t the same, I read a similar reaction yesterday, objecting to the mention in news articles of someone’s religion. In this case it is one I don’t agree with.
To be honest, this is a part of a pretty old debate. I’ve heard it for at least a decade. The argument says, basically, that if someone’s religion isn’t relevant to the news item, it shouldn’t be mentioned in a news report. I have mixed feelings about this, but I understand the logic.
But the biggest problem I have isn’t with the logic, but with its use against articles where the person’s religion is relevant. I think what often happens when LDS Church members are confronted with news that isn’t comfortable, or doesn’t portray the Church or Church members the way we want them to be portrayed. We become defensive, and suggest that the news report is somehow at fault for mentioning the member’s religion.
The article I read yesterday objected to a Salt Lake Tribune article that compared the refusal of an Arabic translator in the U. S. Army, Alyssa Peterson, to get involved in incidents of torture with the involvement of (now) Judge Jay Bybee in writing the memos that permitted that torture.
The author of the article I read yesterday, Joel Campbell, says he thinks that the Tribune article “crossed a journalistic ethical line by over-emphasizing the faith of those involved,” and claimed that the Tribune article participated in “age-old stereotyping that disparages Mormons en masse.”
I don’t see it. And Campbell’s arguments don’t help me get there. He quoted the Tribune article saying:
Just weeks into the war in Iraq, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said the conflict could be justified as an effort to defend liberty and depose a dictator.
God would not hold soldiers responsible ‘as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do.’
But, like church leaders before him, he said nothing about torture.
Into that gap, two faithful Mormons — an interrogator and a government attorney — reached very different conclusions of conscience.
Campbell says that this is “zig and zag,” and asks, “How did we go from the anecdotes of a couple Mormons out of 13 million to a blanket indictment of the faith and its leaders?”
Huh? Where in the quote above is the “blanket indictment of the faith and its leaders?”
The author of the Salt Lake Tribune article, as far as I can see, tries to add an LDS context to her article, explaining what Church leaders have said about the war in Iraq, and moves on to the story of two Church members who ended up involved in the allegations of torture. Where in the quote is any suggestion that anyone even did anything wrong?
He then quotes the article as follows:
Long before Hinckley spoke, Justice Department attorney Jay Bybee signed the infamous memo outlining a 10-step checklist of horrors that ended with making al Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed think they were drowning — a total of 266 times.
Just five months after that conference talk, Army interrogator Alyssa Peterson killed herself after refusing to use the degrading techniques Bybee endorsed on prisoners at her air base in Tal Afar.
And Campbell then asks, “So was the faith of either (now) Judge Jay Bybee and Alyssa Peterson necessary for telling the story?”
Well, I think it is. The fact that these two share the same religion is what ties the story together. In fact, that is the story. Two people with the same or nearly the same religious beliefs and, presumably, similar exposure to religious messages, have very different reactions to an ethical issue they both face. That seems to me like a very legitimate story.
The need to mention religion also comes from the audience. Like it or not, the Salt Lake Tribune is read by Mormons and is published for a geographical area that has a lot of Mormons in it. Even non-Mormons in this geographical area often have an interest in Mormonism because it is in their environment so much. So it is natural that Mormonism is a subject matter for the paper. It is also natural that there is interest among the Tribune’s audience for knowing who is Mormon.
I don’t understand the logic of those that don’t want stories like this written. Should we, as LDS Church members, not be interested in this story? Isn’t it possible that I could learn something about myself, or what I should be doing by puzzling through why two members came to different conclusions about an issue?
I do recognize that these circumstances might be embarrassing to many. The idea that an active, faithful LDS Church member approved actions that are being called torture has to embarrass many of us. Others might even be embarrassed or disturbed that an active, faithful LDS church member would commit suicide.
Campbell’s editorial, then, is based on a faulty reading of the Tribune article, and, in my opinion, inaccurate ideas about when religious affiliation should be mentioned.
But when, then, should religious affiliation be mentioned in the news? I don’t think I have a complete answer, but I do have some basic ideas that might help sort out this issue.
- When the religion is the subject of a news report, clearly mentioning the religion of people in the report is relevant. This was the case with the Tribune article. The fact that two different Mormons confronted a subject differently is the subject of the article.
- When your audience is a particular religion, mentioning that anyone has that same religious affiliation is relevant, if not required. The audience for Times and Seasons is a good example of this. For most posts and “Notes From All Over” sidebar items, we need to mention who is Mormon so that our audience can understand why the item is included. For many situations this isn’t that important, but when the situation is obscure, it is the only way to keep the audience from scratching their heads about why an item is included.
- If you don’t mind seeing an item you think is positive that mentions religious affiliation, then you can’t very well complain when religious affiliation is mentioned when the news is negative. Campbell does this himself–just a week before he criticized the Tribune, he wrote an article titled Personal Mormon stories the media tells to me, in which he summarized the stories of several Mormons who appeared in local media around the globe. In general, the Mormonism of these individuals was not relevant or was only peripheral to the story, but Campbell didn’t object, and, in fact, included them in his own article.
I don’t want to say that religious affiliation is always relevant. Nor do I want to say that the media only includes religious affiliation when it should. The media do err, and they err about religious affiliation.
But I think we need to be careful about accusing the media of ethical lapses in this area. I’m fairly sure that we want the media to cover Mormonism and Mormons. And when religion is perceived as providing moral and ethical guidance it’s hard to see how the religious affiliation of those mentioned in the news is not relevant. Every time someone makes a moral choice, isn’t religion relevant? And if that choice is also newsworthy, isn’t religion then a part of the news?
I’m not quite comfortable going that far, since I think there is a right to privacy, and religious affiliation is something that everyone has a right to keep private, in my view. But when that affiliation is already public, I can’t logically see why it isn’t relevant to any moral decision we make.