When Should the News Mention Religious Affiliation?

May 3, 2009 | 48 comments
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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.

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48 Responses to When Should the News Mention Religious Affiliation?

  1. mc on May 3, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Sure, the religion of Bybee and Peterson “is the story” in that SLT article. But that doesn’t mean there’s really a story there. They could just as easily have found two Catholics or Baptists or whatever to write the same narrative. And it would have been just as meaningless.

  2. Kent Larsen on May 3, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Really? I sure see a story there. While many people knew the Bybee involvement, Peterson’s involvement was less known, and the question of how such different reactions can come from the same religious tradition still bears some thought. Seems like a story to me!

  3. queuno on May 3, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    If the MMM (Mainstream Mormon Media) is going to beat over the head the religious affiliation of every “good” story, why should they ignore the bad?

    (David Archuleta! Jeremy Guthrie! John Beck! Buy our book on Mormon businessmen! Mitt Romney! )

    I’m with Kent. The juxtaposition of Bybee and Peterson is a fair story.

  4. Tim on May 3, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    I think this isn’t just a problem of how members perceive articles about members in the Salt Lake Tribune or in magazines. I think that the Deseret News, and certainly Mormon Times, shy away from discussing LDS members when those member’s actions may be seen in a negative light.
    For example, you’d think that church-owned Deseret News would do a story on the LDS missionary that was arrested because of his immigrant status. It’s certainly more “LDS” news than “Salt Lake” news, and yet the Salt Lake Tribune did a couple of articles on it (and interviewed Elder Holland for it), and Deseret News said nothing.
    I don’t see anything negative about an undocumented immigrant doing missionary work in the US, nor in the church helping him do that. But I think the Deseret News was worried the church would get bad publicity from the incident, so it ignored what would’ve been a great story.

  5. DavidH on May 3, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    I think the articles were very relevant and of interest to the LDS community.

  6. Aaron T. on May 3, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Kent, you are right on.

    I found Campbell’s whole article so bizzare. The whole point of Mormontimes is to emphasize the faith of members and how that faith interacts with their lives. I guess as queno says, only the warm fuzzy stories are relevant? Is the faith of members only reportable during the good times?

    I’ve read countless articles in Mormontimes where, according to Campbell’s definition, the “journalistic ethical line” was crossed the other way.

    Of course, this issue isn’t new. Ardis is clinching her teeth right now. As I’ve stated over and over again – my problem with the theory of presenting only the positive, is that our “story” quickly comes to the point of being misleading. Seems like we have a real danger – as an organization – where in our desire to be positive, or present the church in a positive light, we risk being dishonest.

    Maybe Mormontimes isn’t the place to discuss the bad….but to accuse someone like the Trib of being “unethical” for doing so….come on!

    There is so much we can learn from talking about the tough things.

    Ardis, I need to take you to lunch sometime.

  7. It's Not Me on May 3, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    “The idea that an active, faithful LDS Church member approved actions that are being called torture has to embarrass many of us.”

    Really? It has to embarrass many of us? I suppose that would be true for those who accept the characterization “torture” and/or don’t believe that sort of conduct has any place in the context within which it occurred. It’s a matter of opinion.

  8. Dan on May 3, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    I’ve never really heard of Mormon Times before the last couple of weeks. It seems like propaganda stuff, showing the nice, minimizing the not so nice.

    I think, to answer the question of when news should mention religious affiliation, it would depend on the circumstance of the individuals involved. In the case of Peterson v. Bybee, clearly their religion plays a part, at least it did in Peterson’s case, as she stated she couldn’t participate in torture due to her religious beliefs.

    In general, I’ve not seen many news reports with Mormons involved that I’ve found offensive. Most journalists I’ve read have been very respectful toward Mormons and their beliefs. We ought not to press too hard on this issue.

  9. Kent Larsen on May 3, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Um, “It’s Not Me,” (7) there is a reason I wrote “many of us” instead of “all of us.”

    I think you are assuming a lot about people when you say that they have to believe that torture was involved to be embarrassed. I know that it is counter-intuitive, but many people do get embarrassed even though allegations that bother them are not true. They are embarrassed because they know that other people think that these allegations are true.

  10. Ken on May 3, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    I think that the religion should be in the story if it is germane to it.

    For example it would not be relevant in theis news story:
    So and so, a mormon (baptist, muslim whatever), did so and so, a bad or a good thing.

    Unless he had done it because of his religion, for example…

    Arabic translator refuses to participate in torture based on religious grounds.

    Now it is germane to his story, the story wouldn’t even be complete without telling what his religion is.

    Now to the juxtaposition of the two men. Considering that judge bybee was a mormon that did one thing in regards to torture, while another mormon did something else. Sounds like a story to me, especially in a mormon heavy enviroment.

    Now cant we also see this story as a feel good story for mormons? Yes one person condoned torture.. but we can say to ourselves that we were more like the one that refused to participate… doesnt this give us hope, and inspire us to be more like the one who refused?

    Ohh yea I assume that waterboarding IS torture, and im not going to argue/discuss/converse about it. That thread was closed a few days ago.

  11. Ardis E. Parshall on May 3, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    (I wrote this offline, and see now that I’m basically echoing Ken. Still, since I’ve written it, I’m commenting.)

    Any fact, including religious affiliation, could potentially be relevant. Depending on how the story is written, the same fact could also be meaningless, misleading, sensational, or unnecessarily provocative.

    In my opinion, any story (assuming it’s truthful) and any fact can be told, but the audience, venue, and purpose really matter. J. Bybee’s church membership is relevant if a story is examining his moral compass, or contrasting the decisions growing out of his background with the decisions growing out of A. Peterson’s very similar background. If a reporter doesn’t connect the dots – if he includes Bybee’s church membership in such a way as to imply that his legal decisions arose directly because of his religious background because Mormons, doncha know, are inherently evil and that a member of some other church would necessarily have reached different conclusions, then he jolly well better connect the dots to support his claim; if he doesn’t, then including the fact of church membership is misleading. I think the Tribune story was a valid one, with dots connected and with relevant mention of church affiliation, and I think Joel Campbell was a reactionary fool to have written his whiny complaint.

    The venue also matters. The story of the detained missionary is newsworthy and should have been covered by the Deseret News as well as the Tribune – but the same story wasn’t relevant for discussion over ward pulpits this morning. I don’t understand why the News ignored it. They have no excuse for doing that, in my opinion, because the story would have been of great interest to their main audience, and involves a major current political issue of the kind they routinely cover. That they ignored the story takes something from their claim to be a valid, relevant, newspaper published in the public interest. “All the news that’s fit to print, as long as it doesn’t ruffle any feathers” isn’t a great motto for a newspaper.

    On the other hand, I might give MormonTimes a pass on coverage, because their purpose is to present upbeat, pleasant, inspiring stories of Mormon life. You might not be satisfied with that, but it is what it is and they’re upfront about it, and MormonTimes isn’t being deceptive in their choice of story. Still, I think they just may have forfeited their right to tell any upbeat, pleasant, inspiring story should one grow out of this: Say, for instance, that someone the elder met while incarcerated was so inspired by him that he investigated the Church and was converted – how credible would it be then for MormonTimes to suddenly become interested in telling the elder’s story?

  12. Cameron on May 4, 2009 at 1:59 am

    I think repetition of “MormonTimes” is as silly and childish as repetition of President Obama’s middle name. Really guys? We can do better than this.

  13. Alison Moore Smith on May 4, 2009 at 2:50 am

    Too often the media uses it’s coverage simply to disparage groups they don’t like or prop up those they do.

    If mentioning religion every time a Mormon commits a crime is appropriate, then spread the “good news” around. If an agnostic is arrested or an atheist commits a crime, let’s put that in the story as well—along with Catholics, Baptists, Scientologists, etc.

    Even when I lived in Boca Raton—which was vastly Jewish—I never once read an article that described a perpetrator as being Jewish, even if the last name strongly indicated they were.

    Let’s give equal treatment.

  14. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 4:27 am

    Cameron (12), I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that I repeated “Mormon Times” too oftenin the post? Were you referring to someone who commented? I didn’t notice that repetition, so could you clarify?

  15. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 4:36 am

    Allison (13), I agree that religions (and the non-religious) aught to be treated the same – mentioned in the same way under the same circumstances. But there are a couple of circumstances where that may need some clarification.

    First, what if a publication’s audience is primarily of a particular religion, or if the publication is meant for members of a religion instead of other religions? Clearly, the publication has to cover the audience’s primary religion more than others, in order to serve its audience properly.

    Second, what if a story is unique to a particular religion (i.e., no other religion would have a similar story)?

    In these two areas, it might be difficult to have equal treatment.

  16. Tim on May 4, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Just a clarification: Mormon Times is not a derogatory name for Deseret News. It’s a separate entity. If you go to the article mentioned in the post, you will see “Mormon Times” sprawled across the top.

  17. Ardis E. Parshall on May 4, 2009 at 8:42 am

    D’oh! I couldn’t figure out Cameron’s remark, either, but I think Tim has. Thanks, Tim.

  18. jjohnsen on May 4, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Yeah I don’t think some people understand that Mormon Times is a separate entity owned by the Deseret News. It’s an online newspaper as well as a supplement that is included with the Deseret News every Tuesday (maybe Thursday?). And I wouldn’t expect it to cover the detained missionary or the solder that was against torture. It’s barely a newspaper, more like a version of the newspaper patterned after the section of the Ensign that shares uplifting stories of faith and miracles.

    Other than that, I totally agree with #11. A person’s religion is important to an article if that article is examining moral choices a person has made.

  19. Steven on May 4, 2009 at 10:40 am

    I think it’s relevant to talk about religion in any case where moral issues are involved. The Church takes stands on moral issues, and treatment of prisoners is certainly a moral issue (though I don’t know of an official stand on torture). Also, people like Chad Hardy are excommunicated in well-publicized cases for moral reasons. To an outside observer, it may look like the Church cares a lot about sex (and its image), and little about violence.

    I think since the Church is so involved in political issues, like gay marriage, and is so monolithic, it puts itself out there. Other churches, even Catholicism, are not really considered monolithic. This is either because they’re not focused on a single person or, in the case of Catholicism, because it tolerates cafeteria Catholics and the like much more than the LDS Church tolerates people who don’t believe everything.

  20. Ron on May 4, 2009 at 11:16 am

    The idea of Mormons being involved in torture in any way is not embarassing to me — it is appalling.

  21. Ross on May 4, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Another case in point:

    Recall that a couple of years ago, another LDS lawyer was caught in the crosshairs of a Bush administration legal scandal, the controversy over the firing of U.S. attorneys. That lawyer was Kyle Sampson, Atty. Gen. Gonzales’ chief of staff, who outside his day job happened to be a bishop. Some profiles of Sampson noted that at the time.

    Sampson was embarrassed by the disclosure of emails he had written, including one that expressly proposed deceiving members of Congress about the project to identify U.S. attorneys to be fired. I as a church member found that relevant to my opinion of his behavior. (I could not help but think of that temple-recommend question about being honest with our fellow men.)

    Sampson’s reaction, early on as the controversy unfolded, was to resign.

    I think Jay Bybee would be be well advised to do the same. He is uniquely positioned to reclaim his personal honor, help undo the damage he did to the U.S. system of justice, and help heal the nation.

    That is the kind of moral responsibility I have been taught in the church. So knowing that Bybee and I share such upbringing affects my opinion of him as I watch him today.

    But sadly, at least for now, Bybee is standing by his torture opinions of 2002 — including preposterous assertions that even the Bush administration disavowed almost five years ago: that abuse is not torture unless its pain reaches the point of “death, organ failure or serious impairment of bodily functions.”

    For Bybee to stand by that today, as he did in his recent statement to the New York Times, merely compounds the dishonor.

  22. Ian M. Cook on May 4, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I agree with Ron. I would hate to be in a situation where my employer (the U.S. Government) would ask me to do anything that is morally reprehensible to me, like torture.

    I agree that in these circumstances, the religion of the two individuals is key to the story.

  23. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Steven (19), while I do see your larger point, and I agree that moral issues are a trigger that makes religious affiliation newsworthy, I’d prefer not to bring the Church’s policies into this discussion, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to get the conversation sidetracked.

  24. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Ross (21), I agree that Sampson’s church membership was relevant for many of the news reports, if for no other reason than that LDS Church teachings should have informed the decisions he made. I also agree that it is also relevant in Bybee’s case.

    BUT, I don’t want to get into arguments here about whether or not Bybee or Sampson or any other individual member has done something wrong or not. For this post, let’s make sure we stick to the subject, whether or not and when newspapers should mention that someone is Mormon and how they should cover religious affiliation.

  25. Ross on May 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Kent (24),

    Fair enough. Criticism or defense of the media is interesting, but less so than the content of what is reported. (Full disclosure: I am a former member of the so-called “Mainstream Media” that everyone loves to hate.)

    It is obvious to me as a longtime observer of such things, inside and out, that Mormon connections sometimes do get unique attention. We are, after all, a peculiar people not well understood by others.

    On some level, members realistically have to expect some of that. However, out-of-line mentions of an LDS connection are not very common in quality news organizations. In new media, without professional standards being enforced, anything can happen.

    On another level, it is worthwhile to decry unfair emphasis on LDS angles. For example, although Mitt Romney’s religion was a newsworthy factor in his recent campaign, it was certainly true that much coverage and commentary was unfair in spinning the “Mormon angle.” So while Romney did not end up attracting my support as a citizen, I was hypersensitive to religious-based attacks on him from left or right. Article6blog was a good resource for tracking that backstory.

    Ultimately for me, now just a consumer of news who happens to be LDS, one test I apply is: Does the reported connection to religion matter to me? In the recent situations mentioned above, it does. I am instinctively less defensive when I read about connections in a majority LDS venue, such as this blog or the SL Tribune, than when I read it elsewhere.

  26. kevinf on May 4, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I hadn’t read the Tribune article, but I agree with Kent that the religion of the subjects IS a big part of the story. I compare that with the profile that NPR did a week or so ago about Bybee, where it was mentioned that a colleague “of his same faith” had dinner with Bybee and his wife. In that case, religion was not central to the story, and it wasn’t identified.

    Our stake president, though, has said on a couple of occasions that he doesn’t mind the church’s mention for either good or bad in the media, because it gets people talking, and thus opens the door to dispel rumors and foster potential missionary work.

  27. Ross on May 4, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    p.s. Since the thread is supposed to focus on journalism criticism, note that the “Salt Lake Tribune article” dissected above was not presented as a news story at all, but an opinion column.

    Columnists, op-ed writers, etc., take more license than news reporters. Expect it. Some of those opinions we will like more or less than others.

  28. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    kevinf (26), I think you are right. While I don’t quite agree that “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” as has been claimed somewhere, I think that the truth is not too far from that. If nothing else, the Salt Lake Tribune article is NOT bad publicity.

  29. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Ross (27), I noticed that too, and I should have added it to my analysis in the post. Thanks for bringing it up.

  30. Liberty on May 4, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Didn’t we start this entire problem with the scriptural adage “by their works ye shall know them?”

    Wouldn’t it be nice to read about Latter-day Saints who were government employees who were fired for refusing to engage in questionable actions? But then I am such an idealist…

  31. jjohnsen on May 4, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    “I think it’s relevant to talk about religion in any case where moral issues are involved. The Church takes stands on moral issues, and treatment of prisoners is certainly a moral issue (though I don’t know of an official stand on torture). Also, people like Chad Hardy are excommunicated in well-publicized cases for moral reasons. To an outside observer, it may look like the Church cares a lot about sex (and its image), and little about violence.”

    I don’t think this is a Mormon thing, couldn’t you say this about most Americans?

  32. queuno on May 4, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    I don’t particularly *mind* MormonTimes. They can publish whatever fluff they want. What irked me was the Bilko-esque “I’m shocked! Shocked!” spin Campbell put on his objection…

  33. Kent Larsen on May 4, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Liberty (30), the Salt Lake Tribune article DID talk about a Latter-day Saint who, as a government employee, refused to engage in questionable actions! Alyssa Peterson, a U.S. Army translator refused to participate in torture of prisoners in Iraq, and was demoted and browbeaten until she committed suicide.

    The stories you want certainly do happen, but I suspect that standing on principle like this is hard, and the vast majority, both inside and outside of Mormonism, can’t manage to do it.

  34. Craig H. on May 4, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Anyone notice that the article about Mrs. Dodd, in the sidebar, doesn’t mention she is Mormon…? It’s one of many examples in my reading which suggests that most of the time religion is mentioned when it’s relevant, and sometimes it’s mentioned when it’s not relevant. But that’s very imprecise, and surely the interested can study this more carefully.

  35. Liberty on May 5, 2009 at 1:46 am

    Hi Kent,

    I was aware of the Alyssa Peterson story. Her suicide is tragic. I was thinking of the other LDSaints, who were in far less vulnerable circumstances, but for some reason aided the Bush adminstration in justifying torture and assisting in the development of techniques.

    I agree with what others have already noted, this is a moral issue and the participants’ religion is relevant. Particularly if that religion’s leaders have chosen to be more politically active on other moral issues. This story practically begs the question “So why don’t Mormons care about torture?” But that leads us off topic.

  36. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 5, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Any military member who believes he or she is being ordered to do something that violates the law, and thus the oath taken by all service members to uphold the Constitution, can (a) take the issue up the chain of command, including a request to be reassigned, (b) file a complaint with the Inspector General, (c) communicate with her congressional representative, and (d) refuse what she considered to be an unlawful order. She or he could also consult military defense counsel and also speak with a military chaplain, in both cases on a confidential basis, in which statements made by a service member are not subject to disclosure, even in trial.

    If he or she is prosecuted for failure to obey an order, he or she can demand a court-martial trial before a panel of fellow service members, is provided with independent military defense counsel and with necessary witnesses at no cost, and has the right additionally to hire a civilian counsel to assist in his or her defense. If the topic of the order is a classified matter, no prosecution can go forward unless review is made on the disclosure of classified information that would result from trial (many prosecutions are not done in such cases).

    If to obey the order would offend fundamental moral and religious principles for the accused, it is a defense that can be considered at trial, and would in fact be considered by the commanding officer who is the convening authority even before trial is authorized. Conscientious objection applies not just to participation in combat per se, but also to specific aspects of military assignments. It is not unusual for military members to decide that their sincerely held moral or religious convictions prevent them from performing certain duties. People who are strict sabbatarians, for example, and cannot perform duty on their sabbath are discharged on such grounds, but not held criminally liable.

    Even if a conviction results, both the verdict and sentence can be appealed, and when the nature of the charge does not make the person dangerous to the community, deferral of execution of the sentence during appeal is frequent.

    My own best guess is that if Sergeant Peterson had spoken with military defense counsel and expressed her problem, and in light of the desire of Army Intelligence to maintain secrecy about the practices, she would have been reassigned to duties outside interrogation and admonished to maintain the secrecy of the program. An adverse action such as early discharge or prosecution would create a risk of public disclosure, so would most likely be avoided by her immediate superiors.

    The point I want to make is that one is not faced with a stark choice between suicide and participation in what one considers an immoral activity in the military. If one is willing to sacrifice a long term military career, there are many options for exercising one’s conscience. This is not something that the military emphasizes a lot. For that matter, the Church does not have formal instruction in Priesthood Meeting about occasions when one should go over the head of your bishop or stake president. But it is an option that is there.

    To the extent that we feel culpable ourselves for participating in something that we feel is immoral, we need to remember that the Atonement is all about repentance and the promise of forgiveness. A lot of what the Ammonites did was immoral, even murderous, but they found a path to repentance and forgiveness.

    Without Sgt Peterson available to explain exactly what she experienced, it is impossible to tell whether any of her co-workers or superiors contributed directly to her state of mind. Many people experience varying degrees of depression, which can worsen in times of stress, even when the stress is from trying to do something righteous, like missionary service. Just as we would not want to judge Sgt Peterson for harming herself, we should restrain ourselves from charging any particular person or institution (such as the Army Intelligence Corps) with direct personal responsibility for what occurred to her.

  37. Kent Larsen on May 5, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Raymond (36), I’m not quite sure how all this fits in with the issue of when news media should mention someone’s religious affiliation.

    But it is interesting.

  38. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 6, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    RE #37–I think the fact that Sgt. Peterson was LDS is something that I would appreciate knowing, just as the membership of Judge Bybee is relevant, precisely because this is a complex moral issue, and knowing something about how people who come from my own moral universe dealt with it can help me to appreciate that complexity. Sorry for the tangential nature of my earlier comment, but part of the moral issue involves how members of the military services and civilian intelligence agencies actually deal with implementing the policy. The perception that the policy drove an LDS woman to suicide is part of the indictment of the policy in the media and blogosphere. Matters are more complex than that.

  39. Ross on May 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    While we’re being journalism critics, this story in the BYU Daily Universe, which was picked up in the larger blogosphere, caught my eye today: “BYU alum ensnared in torture controversy”

    http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/72400

    There really was no news in the story, but there was palpable political spin. Repeatedly, the reporter focused on so-called “left-leaning” critics of Bybee, or other elements of “the uprising on the left.”

    Sheesh. That swallows hole the false partisan talking point that the torture controversy is just a left-right political issue. Not so. For many of us across the spectrum it is a primarily legal issue — protecting the rule of law.

    I am an independent with plenty of history supporting conservative candidates sometimes. (I have voted for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Heck, I campaigned for the elder Bush and Barry Goldwater many years before this kid reporter at BYU was born.) I have supported legal “conservatives” such as John Roberts and Samuel Alito. And I am appalled at Bybee’s actions precisely because I believe he subverted the rule of law during his tenure at the Justice Department.

    A shorter version of the BYU story would be: “Left picks on LDS judge over torture. Go Cougars!”

  40. Kent Larsen on May 7, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Ross, I understand the feeling. That article was a kind of attack on the left — full of assumptions that they must be wrong just because of their views.

    But I guess this post is more of an objection to those that criticize the media, than a criticism of the Mormon media.

  41. Ross on May 7, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Kent,

    I don’t object to criticising the media. Often such criticism is deserved. I guess I don’t understand why you think “Mormon media” are left out of the scope of the thread. (And unlike the opinion columns in the original post above, the BYU newspaper story actually purported to be news reporting.)

    It did make me wonder what sort of journalism they are teaching at BYU — which is, after all, subsidized by our tithing. That politicized story even failed to mention the key fact that the judge is under ethics investigation by the Justice Department for his actions there. Not did it mention that the major national media were reporting that very day that the draft DOJ report makes allegations to be referred to state bars for further disposition.

    BTW, apropos the question in your original post, neither those national news stories nor the BYU Daily Universe story mentioned Bybee’s religion. (In the latter case, the unstated association was obvious, of course.)

  42. Kent Larsen on May 7, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Ross, I’m not quite understanding you. The reason for the post was to ask about when religious affiliation should be mentioned. The only criticism is of those who think that the media should never mention religious affiliation, and who think that the Tribune was wrong in mentioning the religion of Bybee and Peterson.

    I do agree with your criticism of the Daily Universe, and I think it probably does show a lack of judgement in how the journalism program is run. But this isn’t what the post is all about.

    If you look at the original post, you will see that the original post was not about the national news story nor the Daily Universe story, but was about the Salt Lake Tribune story and about the suggestion in the Mormon Times that the Tribune should not have mentioned the religious affiliation of Bybee and Peterson.

  43. Ross on May 7, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Kent (42),

    Perhaps you should just correct your headline to say, “Was it okay for this Salt Lake Tribune opinion column to mention religious affiliation?” instead of the more general and quite different “When should the news mention religious affiliation?” (That would be a pretty narrow topic for discussion in a blog, when real-world news events beg our attention. But it would save you the trouble of policiing comments you consider to be off-topic.)

    Once again, I am compelled to correct the nomenclature of your last comment. The original SL Trib piece did not purport to be a news “story” at all. It was an editorial columnist’s opinion, labeled as such. There also was a different Trib op-ed opinion column referenced by your linked item at Mormon Times.

    But since your headline is what it is, to summarize the facts this blog post and the comments have discovered: Of the various published articles mentioned in this thread that did purport to be news stories, it turns out that none actually mentioned the subject’s religion except for a man-in-the-news profile of one public figure. It is not unusual for such a profile to mention someone’s religion if it centrally helps define them. (Imagine profiling an LDS bishop without mentioning what he spends half his time on.)

    The one other exception purporting to be news was the Universe “story,” where the subject’s religion was so obvious from the context it really needed no mention. And that example, I suggest, did not follow professional standards of news reporting at all; it was more like an opinion piece masquerading as a news story. The most charitable excuse for such sophomoric editorial content is that it may have been edited by actual sophomores.

  44. Kent Larsen on May 8, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Ross, I don’t understand why you continue to make an issue of this. Do you just want to argue with someone about this?

    I’m not worried about the detail of whether I called the Tribune piece a news story or an editorial or a news analysis.

    My point is simply that the Tribune item was reasonable, despite what the Mormon Times said.

    I’ve agreed with you multiple times now that the Daily Universe editorial is also badly done, so I don’t understand why you keep bringing this up!

    Apparently, we disagree on whether the Daily Universe article is relevant. It is clear to me that it has more to do with the details of the Bybee case than whether or not it is right to identify him as Mormon. But you seem to have trouble with this opinion.

    So what. Let’s agree to disagree and get it over with.

  45. Ross on May 8, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Kent,

    We haven’t disagreed much about detail in the examples. We do differ fundamentally on our analytical approach to the media. It seems we really have been quibbling over two examples of what you called “the Mormon media” — MormonTimes and the BYU Daily Universe.

    Your own thesis in the original post was not so much that the SL Trib column treatment was all right, but that the MormonTimes column was wrong in its criticism. I tend to agree in this particular case, but I think it is a closer call. In fact, because I am aware that some items out there in media — usually opinion pieces or Internet blogs — do cross the line in what they say about LDS stuff, it’s okay with me if opinion writers like Campbell, or the operators of Article6blog, push back. That is true even if I disagree on particular cases.

    The BYU piece, by contrast, I consider to be wholly without merit. There, the author and editor (whose readers effectively knew all about Bybee’s religion even if it was unstated) actually disgraced the credibility of their own “Mormon media” outlet by corrupting their purportedly objective “news story” in a grossly opinionated way, while withholding the actual negative news from their readers. Thus they violated the core values of newspaper journalism.

    I came upon the Daily Universe link in a respected national news-aggregation site focused on legal matters, and cringed. The Universe story made the “Mormon media” itself look bad, while the MormonTimes column you mention– presented as one man’s opinion of someone else’s opinion — seemed more defensible. (Just as your critique of Campbell’s critique is defensible.)

    I think Campbell showed a thin skin, but his column did not make me cringe the way the BYU newspaper did. One test for me is that I would not be embarrassed to have my non-LDS friends read the MormonTimes column, but I would be embarrassed if they saw the BYU newspaper.

  46. Tim on May 8, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    On the topic of Mormon Times, kudos to them for finally mentioning the undocumented LDS missionary (see the side bar–A Christlike approach to immigration).
    It’s clear their writers go beyond Deseret News to stay informed.

  47. Kent Larsen on May 8, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Ross (45) wrote:

    Your own thesis in the original post was not so much that the SL Trib column treatment was all right, but that the MormonTimes column was wrong in its criticism. I tend to agree in this particular case, but I think it is a closer call. In fact, because I am aware that some items out there in media — usually opinion pieces or Internet blogs — do cross the line in what they say about LDS stuff, it’s okay with me if opinion writers like Campbell, or the operators of Article6blog, push back. That is true even if I disagree on particular cases.

    Actually, you seem to have the wrong idea of my opinions. I agree 100% with the above. Some media do err and include Mormonism when they should not. And I agree that the MT, Campbell, the Daily Universe, Deseret News, and even those of us here on Times & Seasons have every right to, and even SHOULD criticize those who mention Mormonism when they shouldn’t.

    I just disagree with Campbell’s take on this article.

    I think Campbell showed a thin skin, but his column did not make me cringe the way the BYU newspaper did. One test for me is that I would not be embarrassed to have my non-LDS friends read the MormonTimes column, but I would be embarrassed if they saw the BYU newspaper.

    I see your point now. I’m not sure that I agree that the DU article is worse, but I can see how you might disagree. For me they are equally annoying.

    I should add that articles getting picked up in aggregators is likely to happen more and more (as I’m sure you know), so we are all likely to get more and more embarrassed by articles like that in the DU and attitudes like that in the MT article.

    Am I wrong in thinking that our only chance is to confront all of these wrongheaded attitudes?

  48. Ross on May 8, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Kent (47),

    Yes, it does make sense to confront attitudes we find wrongheaded. Obviously, you and I are in substantial agreement.

    On the question of differentiating opinion pieces from news stories, my own view is informed fundamentally by years of working as a professional journalist. (Which, I presume, journalism students at the Y might aspire to become.)

    Although the public often does not recognize it, and the lines are being blurred in today’s cable/blog/talk environment, the profession really has had a core ethic distinguishing news from opinion. That is why I cannot help but judge opinion columns by a different standard than I apply to straight news reporting, which is what the campus newpaper was purporting to publish. When “news stories” cross the line, my ingrained ethic is offended.

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