By Kristin Owens
This week?s issue of Newsweek magazine hit stands emblazoned with an illustration of what most Latter-day Saints would recognize as Joseph Smith?s ?First Vision.? The accompanying feature story gives readers an overview of basic church doctrine and history while raising the hackles of believers and skeptics alike.
The piece is only the latest example of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the news, where it periodically resurfaces in headlines. In this instance, the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith?s birth led a former BYU student to pitch the story to her editors at Newsweek, who agreed it had potential to ?resonate with Mormons and non-Mormons alike.?
?My job wasn?t to write a press release for the church,? said reporter Elise Soukup, who graduated from BYU in 2003. ?I?m surprised [the article] turned up so much controversy ? it?s so basic, nothing Latter-day Saints haven?t heard before in terms of criticism. On the other side, it does touch on the major criticisms.?
Soukup said while much of the feedback has been positive, she has heard from both people who feel she wrote a ?promo? and, on the other side, church members who feel the piece was too harsh.
?I take it as a compliment,? she said. ?It means I?m doing my job correctly.?
While readers debated the motivations behind the history highlighted in the article, church authorities appear to be satisfied with the coverage.
?While people will debate and quibble over some of the details and interpretations in the magazine, the Newsweek articles are another indication of the increasing recognition of the unparalleled contributions of this extraordinary man [Joseph Smith] to our understanding of God”s plan for His children,” said church spokesman Mark Tuttle in a press release.
This most recent national spotlight on religion joins a host of publications taking an in-depth look at how Americans approach spirituality.
Glen Feighery, a journalism professor at the University of Utah, speculated as to why a religion that comprises only a small percentage of the population repeatedly captures national attention. Religious sects that are less understood and perceived as more unusual are often more interesting to the media than traditional denominations, he said.
?The church is a mystery to many people ? it gets categorized as this unusual religion here in our midst because it?s different from what most people subscribe to, and so it?s seen as more newsworthy,? said Feighery, who worked as a journalist for 16 years. Feighery is not a member of the LDS church.
One problem Feighery said he has seen in news coverage of many religions, particularly the less mainstream faiths, is that many journalists aren?t qualified in their knowledge of the subject.
?You couldn?t cover a ball game if you didn?t know the rules of the game or what a home run was,? he said. ?But you do get people covering religion when they don?t understand it. You wouldn?t confuse the Roman Catholic Church with the way it was during the Inquisition, but people do that with the LDS church ? cover it like something it?s not.?
For these reasons Feighery said a church member covering his or her own religion makes perfect sense, especially considering the levels of unbiased editing an article must go through.
However, in an online forum with Soukup, readers voiced their concern that such a conflict of interest is not consistent with ethical journalism. She responded that it is not uncommon for reporters to cover the issues they have the most experience with, citing a TIME cover story on gay teenagers written by a gay reporter.
In the opinion of BYU sociology professor Cardell Jacobson, the LDS religion will continue to garner media attention due to its increasing numbers. In the most religious of all western industrialized countries, he said, a change in the mix of religion is something worth public interest.
For the author of this particular story, the diverse reactions to her article are welcome.
?I just hope that people, both Mormons and non-Mormons, learn something from it,? said Soukup. ?It stimulated debate, and that?s the most you can hope for ? to spark a discussion.?