Nix 'Mormon' talk in news! How can media handle major faith’s unreasonable plea?
(COMMENTARY) The venerable Mormon Tabernacle Choir has announced that it is now named “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.” (Will newswriters trim that to “Tabernacle Choir”?)
Reason: President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared that “the importance of the name” that God “revealed for His Church,” means believers and outsiders must drop “Mormon” and use that full nine-word name. (Copyreaders will note: definite article with capital T, hyphen, lower-case d.)
Church scriptures say this name was given to founder Joseph Smith, Jr., on April 26, 1838, the same day God granted him “the keys of this kingdom.”
Nelson, a former surgeon who became Smith’s successor as prophet in January, even asserts that use of “Mormon” is "a major victory for Satan." He admits “it’s going to be a challenge to undo tradition of more than 100 years,” but change is “non-negotiable” because “the Lord wants it that way.”
The faith will lose something, because the “Mormon” people have long built up respect for their nickname through upright and neighborly living. Indeed, the church spent serious money on an image-boosting “Meet the Mormons” movie and “I’m a Mormon” ads.
The name game is a blame game that puts the media in a bind, as news executives said after Nelson’s August edict, so The Religion Guy adds some guidance to GetReligion’s prior article and this tmatt interview with an LDS journalism professor.
Obviously, The Guy gave this perennial problem considerable thought in co-authoring the book “Mormon America” with his late wife Joan.
The Associated Press Stylebook deems the long-ingrained “Mormon” label acceptable — although it originated with 19th Century antagonists — and was only gradually adopted by the believers themselves.
Since “Mormon” is no slur for 21st Century audiences, what’s going on here?
The major Salt Lake City-based denomination outlawed Smith’s polygamy teaching in 1890 and abhors confusion with marginal “Mormon fundamentalists” who perpetuate it – and who’ve been implicated in sexual abuse and homicide. Also, the church seeks recognition as an authentic “Church of Jesus Christ,” indeed the one true church restored in these “latter days.” Other churches have a far different doctrinal definition of authentic Christianity, and it’s not the media’s business to take sides.
Yet journalists should consider the pleas of Nelson and his predecessors because it’s good policy to follow religious groups’ preferences when feasible. A conservative Protestant group may ask the media to avoid “ultra” or “fundamentalist” labels as inaccurate or invidious. Yet centuries ago the Friends embraced the Quaker nickname though scoffers originated it.
The church policy statement wants media to use the full TCoJCoLDS in the first reference. That’s what The Guy (and The AP) recommend in articles covering this one faith. However, that isn’t feasible in headlines, or with broadcasting that needs quick identifiers, and isn’t sensible if this group gets only brief incidental mention in a story.
The news business is all about clarity regarding who and what we’re talking about, so The Guy would allow “Mormon” when it helps readers with that. However, he recommends putting the M-word within parentheses with quote marks in first use to signal that’s the universally recognized but unofficial nickname.
Another option, “LDS,” provides the necessary shorthand, but church policy says the media should shun that, too, though members may be called “Latter-day Saints.” With respect, The Guy finds this unreasonable. “LDS” clearly identifies this particular religious body, lacks any negative history, has long been used by the church to itself (e.g. LDS Business College, LDS Philanthropies) and is universal lingo among members.
Instead of “LDS” or “Mormon,” headquarters recommends:
(1) “the Church,” an OK choice for second references if the “c” is lower case.
(2) The “Church of Jesus Christ,” which is confusing because that fits many denominations.
(3) The “restored Church of Jesus Christ,” a non-starter that endorses one denomination’s disputed doctrine.
As Brigham Young University’s Joel Campbell has observed, “Mormon” will exist forever in Internet searches.
The AP will see whether church members drop the disputed M-word, and reporters should monitor further name changes (e.g. the church-owned daily’s Mormon Times section, www.mormon.org, www.mormonnewsroom.org or the Mormon Channel). We’re told the 19th Century “Mormon Trail” remains OK, alongside Smith’s title for the Book of Mormon.