10 April 2008 The public affairs office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today complimented U.S. media outlets for being careful to distinguish between the 13-million-member international Church and a small polygamous sect raided by Texas state officers late last week.
However, the Church said that some international news outlets are running misleading reports that confuse the Church with the polygamous group. Some news outlets have even run photographs of the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City alongside the story of the polygamists. Several headline writers have inserted the term “Mormon” into headlines without making distinctions.
The Church reiterated on Sunday (6 April) that it has no affiliation whatever with the Texas-based sect that has been subject to investigation by state law enforcement officers and child protective services in recent days, and whose leader, Warren Jeffs, was jailed in 2006.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued polygamy officially in 1890. More than a century later, some news reports, especially those outside the U.S., still fail to draw clear distinctions whenever stories arise about polygamy in the Intermountain West.
After the story about the Texas raid on the polygamy compound broke last week, the Associated Press Salt Lake City bureau was immediately in contact with their Texas counterparts to discuss how to make the correct distinctions. CNN, National Public Radio, Voice of Americaand USA Today were among many organizations that made the distinction accurately
Elder M. Russell Ballard, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who oversees public affairs, said that the Church had noticed “a marked improvement” in the past few years in the way the news media has reported on the Church’s historical connection with polygamy. The changes may be a result of the increased public awareness of the Church resulting from coverage of the Salt Lake Olympics and the recent presidential bid by a member of the Mormon faith.
But Elder Ballard said that Latter-day Saints are still offended when elementary mistakes are made in the news media or when printed or posted photographs fail to make the distinction between the Church and the polygamous groups.
“You would think that after over 100 years, media organizations would understand the difference,” he said. “You can’t blame the public for being confused when some of those reporting on these stories keep getting them wrong.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has members in most countries of the world and serves its members in over 90 languages.
Some examples of misreporting include:
- The French news agency Agence France-Presse initially posted on its Web site a photograph of the Salt Lake Temple along with the story of the raid on the polygamous compound. The photograph was removed on Wednesday, three days after the Church requested the agency to take it down and correct inaccuracies in the story. The news wire service then sent out correcting information.
- Several major Russian media outlets continue to associate the Church with the polygamous sect despite requests to correct reports.
- Some Mexican radio reports have erroneously identified the sect as being The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several media reports in Bolivia, the Caribbean, Uruguay and Colombia have also failed to make the distinction clear.
Beginning today, the Church is placing additional materials on the Newsroom Web site and on other Internet sites to help clarify misleading reports.
The site also links to a related Reuter’s report:
The Mormon faith — or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it is officially called — has a “fundamental” PR problem.
It may have renounced polygamy over a century ago but the breakaway sects which continue to practice plural marriage are the ones that often catch the public eye, leading to the popular misconception that all Mormon men have, or strive to have, more than one (often underage) wife.
This was driven home to me as investigators late last week swooped on a polygamist compound in a remote part of west Texas in response to an abuse complaint.
The compound belongs to followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and is linked to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which broke away from the main branch of the faith decades ago.
Over 400 children were yanked from the Texas facility over the course of the weekend and into the early part of this week, providing a riveting spectacle in a dusty corner of the state.
Television footage showed young girls in long, apparently homemade “pioneer dresses” boarding buses. Some who looked to be in their early teens carried infant children. Texas child welfare officials said it was their biggest operation ever.
As all of this was unfolding my wife happened to mention to a friend of hers in South Africa — a friend who is well-educated, a journalist and a devout Christian — that I was covering the story. Her friend’s response? “Those Mormons, they’re weird. I don’t answer the door when they knock,” she said. My wife said as far as her friend was concerned, Mormons were Mormons and that was that.
Of course, the mainstream Mormon church, which claims a worldwide membership of around 13 million, is the one sending missionaries around the globe to knock on doors and spread the faith.
The renegade polygamist sects whose followers number several thousand (some estimates are as high as 40,000 or more) are not knocking on doors in Johannesburg. But the perception is clearly there: Mormons are the funny fellows taking multiple wives and living in isolated retreats in remote patches of America.
In places like Texas, the mainstream Mormon faith — based in Salt Lake City, Utah — has to contend with plenty of suspicion anyway.
Southern Baptists and other evangelicals widely regard Mormonism as an almost sinister cult which is successfully competing for souls among the faithful. They regard Joseph Smith, who founded the faith in New York state in 1830, as a false prophet. Southern Baptists are taught in Sunday School to be wary of that “knock on the door” from Mormon missionaries.
Against this backdrop the last thing the mainstream LDS needs is more bad press stemming from its fundementalist kin. The Texas media is abuzz about the probe and court documents alleging a compound rife with sexual abuse and girls being forced into “spiritual marriage” after reaching puberty.
One also gets the impression that Texas authorities were chomping at the bit to take the place down, given the scale of the operation in response to complaints allegedly made by one person.
But it has all served to reinforce popular stereotypes of the Mormon faith — and that must be causing discomfit in Salt Lake City.
Unfortunately the lead photo of the Reuters story is one of Warren Jeffs, who is not now, and has never been a Mormon. From what I have read I agree with the public relations deparment that the foreign coverage seems to be the most sloppy; however, until some time today, USAToday ran an article with a side bar graphic listing the history of the FLDS Church; however, the title of the graphic was:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
On 4/8/08, I sent an email (copy below) to the USA today accuracy editors. The title of the graphic did not change until sometime today. I’m certain it was not in response to my email, but rather contact from the Church’s public affairs department.
hide details Apr 8 (2 days ago)
Mr. Brent Jones:
USA Today’s story appearing here:
contains an egregious error. The story identifies the Fundamentalist Church in West Texas as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the Mormon Church based in Salt Lake City. The Church’s are NOT the same. Please see this link:
The error is located in the side bar of the paper’s online story. Please correct this error, or remove the side bar reference.
Guy W. Murray
Messenger and Advocate
My other complaint with most of the media coverage is the incredible sensationalism on the alleged “sexual” aspects of the story. The discovery of a bed in the temple, is now some type of sexual consummation bed for new brides after entering into “spiritual marriages.”
Overall, I think a few media sources have reported well, including the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News; however, almost all televion/cable stations have had horrendous coverage.