Following faith, especially Mormonism

This year has produced no shortage of Mormonism coverage with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in the presidential race. If you want a continual source for Mormon news, be sure to follow the work of Peggy Fletcher Stack, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, located in Mormon central.

Earlier this year, the Tribune launched a religion blog called Following Faith, where Stack regularly updates national and local stories often related to Mormonism in the news. But Stack’s reporting goes much further back than the blog. Stack, who studied at the University of Utah and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., has been writing for Tribune‘s award-winning Faith section for more than two decades.

She spent four days following the Dalai Lama around Salt Lake City, two weeks following the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley around Africa, and about a half hour interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the 2002 Winter Olympics. We asked Stack to talk about her interest in religion’s conflicts and cohesion for GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

How do you think your job differs from a religion reporter at another newspaper, maybe one in Florida or one in Massachusetts?

Because most Utahns belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I end up writing many more stories about that church, its teachings, programs and developments than about any other faith. While reporters in other regions such as the Bible Belt may spend the bulk of their time writing about the dominant faith in their area, this is also LDS Church headquarters and home to its hierarchy where all institutional decisions are made. Think Rhode Island’s Catholic majority but with the Vatican in the state capital and priests as legislators. We are also the only secular paper that writes extensively about Mormonism, which means readers across the globe are looking to us for a knowledgeable, even-handed approach to LDS news.

Has the nation’s increased interest in Mormonism changed your reporting or the stories you pursue?

Sure, it has put more pressure on us to be the first, the best and the most definitive source of Mormon issues. For example, the paper sent me to the opening night of previews for “The Book of Mormon” musical. I quoted a Mormon who went with me as saying the show was “surprisingly sweet.” I saw that quote and perspective repeated endlessly, even by playwrights Trey Parker and Matt Stone themselves. It humbled me to realize yet again that other reporters – and LDS members and critics worldwide – were watching what we do on Mormon issues, taking their cue from us. Obviously, we have made missteps in our coverage–which GetReligion is quick to point out–and each time we do, we go through rounds of self-analysis at what went wrong. But we remain committed to the ideal of fairness and balance. Now that there seems to be a bottomless appetite for reporting on Mormons, both for members themselves and curious outsiders, we feel it is important to be leaders in the field. At the same time, many of the stories other media are now exploring topics we have already printed and with which are readers are already fully familiar.

How do you balance coverage of other religions with high percentage of Mormons in your demographic?

Even though much of our reporting is on the LDS Church, I enjoy covering all faiths and feel a desire and responsibility to educate our readers on the religious diversity in Utah. We work hard to highlight events, issues and developments in smaller Utah faiths, despite their percentage of the whole. I think even our Mormon readers appreciate learning about other groups and spiritual journeys.

Are there specific challenges to covering Mormonism that you might not find when covering other religions?

Mormonism is such a closely knit community and all-encompassing experience for so many that it has spawned intense feelings of loyalty in believers and hostility among outsiders or former believers. It is tricky to maintain a reasoned approach, without tipping too far to one side or the other. I’ve been accused of being a Mormon church puppet on the one hand and the anti-Christ on the other, so I feel I am doing OK. About the only analogue I can conjure is Jerusalem, with its pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions, each looking for signs that a reporter is prejudiced against them. Too many readers know a lot about the LDS faith and practice and are ready to pounce if they think I got some detail wrong, while others know little or nothing. So I am always struggling to ensure my writing is thorough enough for insiders but not too detailed for everyone else. It can be exhausting. Sometimes I yearn for a good Jewish holiday story or a dicey exploration of ethics as a nice break from all the Mormon-created tension.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media are having a hard time grasping?

Though lots of reporters have written about the theological differences between Mormonism and historic Christianity — some thoughtful, others superficial — few really understand the broader differences and similarities in culture and community. That goes to my problem with coverage of other faiths, too. Many reporters treat groups like Mormons, Muslims, and Buddhists as monolithic, describing a simple set of beliefs and practices that they presume all follow. There is often little context, nuance or texture in that kind of religion reporting. In a word, Mormons may all be in the same faith family, but they can be as different as brothers, sisters, step-siblings and adoptees.

What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I expect I’ll be writing much more about Mitt Romney and his faith as the next year unfolds. I will also continue to follow the impact of such national attention on the LDS Church itself. Will it be just a fleeting moment, somewhat like the spotlight shown on the Utah-based church by the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, or will it bring about lasting awareness or shifts in perspective? How many times will I have to explain to a French television crew that the LDS Church abandoned polgamy a century ago? How will the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals change, if at all? What elements of Mormon history and doctrine will capture the journalistic fancy and be studied – and written – to death?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

When I read a story about any religion, I closely observe what sources the reporter chose to quote. I realize it is tough to find authoritative Mormon sources, because LDS full-time officials rarely agree to interviews and a random leader in the local lay clergy may know little or nothing about the issue at hand. Mormonism doesn’t have theologians, per se, who can explain the faith in terms outsiders can grasp. Even finding Mormons wearing the title, “president,” (as in Elders’ Quorum president or Relief Society president), doesn’t mean their perspective is in any sense representative. I do feel that more investigative work on churches, particularly on money issues, would benefit the reading public. I don’t think religions should be either critiqued for their teachings and practices or exempt from close scrutiny. I also would like to see more exploration of ethical issues as they relate to business, social services and religion stories.

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  • Mollie

    Awesome Q&A.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    What Mollie said.

  • Jon in the Nati

    When I read a story about any religion, I closely observe what sources the reporter chose to quote. I realize it is tough to find authoritative Mormon sources, because LDS full-time officials rarely agree to interviews and a random leader in the local lay clergy may know little or nothing about the issue at hand.

    This has been an issue before around GR; to my mind, the issue is compounded by the fact that reporters often know exactly who to contact in a situation regarding, say, the Roman Catholic Church. They call the bishop, of one of his spokespeople, and they usually get some kind of answer.

    When there is an LDS-related story in a place where the LDS are not a well-known or mainstream group, who should the reporter call? Peggy Fletcher Stack seems to intimate that there is a somewhat small ‘window’ of leaders one can talk to; go too high and they won’t return your phone calls, go too low/local and they may not know much of relevance. I get that, and it makes sense. So who should be the go-to official for comment in such a situation? The stake president, perhaps? Maybe the area seventy? Of course, to know that these people even exist presumes a knowledge of LDS ecclesiology that most journalists lack.

    Still, though, fantastic Q&A.

  • Julia

    Back before I dropped HBO, I was fascinated by Big Love and found Ms. Stack’s columns where she was doing yeoman’s work explaining how the TV show was plausible and where it wasn’t. Then the govt “recued” all those Fundamentalist LDS women and children in Texas. Again, Ms. Stack was the go-to for some kind of explanation of what’s going on.

    She’s knowledgable, straight-talking, gets lots of relevant quotes and you can get a picture of the scene in Utah and sometimes the diaspora.

    A friend I made a few years ago who grew up in St George is amazed that I understand something about his home area. I learned it from reading Ms Stack’s neutral reporting.

    Most interesting to me is the changing attitude of law enforcement and the legal community in regard to the small splinter groups.

    She does indeed write for the locals who automatically “get it” and for others who look to her for explanations of matters beyond their ken. Ms. Stack succeeds.

    Mega kudos.

  • Jettboy

    Two disagreements here about what she said:

    “We are also the only secular paper that writes extensively about Mormonism.”

    wrong, there is the Deseret News. From what I understand, it was owned by the LDS Church, but was sold off to a secular company. It has a whole section devoted to Mormonism. Some would say the whole paper is I suppose. You want “another perspective,” I would say read it.

    “I do feel that more investigative work on churches, particularly on money issues, would benefit the reading public.”

    Um, why? She needs to explain this or its nothing more than a personal bias with no substantial purpose.

  • peggy Stack

    Thanks for the kind words, Julia. But I don’t write about polygamy at all — unless I am explaining the mainstream LDS Church’s view of it. All the impressive reports you are describing were penned be my colleague, Brooke Adams.
    I wrote one piece about the HBO series, when one episode carried a snippet of action inside an LDS temple ceremony. I wrote a piece explaining why Mormons view the temple as sacred and what it means to them. Other than that, nothing related to Big Love.

  • Jettboy

    And one more thing, I would really just once like a newspaper to report the substantial numbers of Mormons who find The Book of Mormon offensive on the face of it. Instead, it always sounds like Mormons approve. The majority don’t.

  • peggy Stack

    Jettboy, Deseret News is still owned and operated by the LDS Church. It is not, in any sense, a “secular paper.”
    You are right, though. It’s worth reading for a Mormon perspective on the news.

  • Jettboy

    For those who might be confused, that is the Book of Mormon Musical I am referring to of course. There is a large number of Mormons who detest its very existence that goes unreported.

  • Brooke Adams

    Julia and Peggy, thanks to both of you for the compliments!

    I really enjoyed reading the Q&A with Peggy and found it incredibly insightful even though I am well familiar with her work and the dynamics of reporting on Mormonism here in Utah.

  • Jettboy

    Ownership noted, but I still define it as a secular paper that just happens to be owned by a religious institution. Its main focus is not Mormonism, but secular news.

  • Julia

    Ms Stack and Ms Adams:

    Sorry for merging two reporters.

    I learned a lot from both of you.

  • Michael Nielsen

    Peggy Stack’s reporting is excellent. She is supremely knowledgeable, writes clearly, and is very fair about contentious issues.

    The same is true of Brooke Adams’ work. Her reporting on polygamy was superior to that found in other papers/media. She carefully developed sources among people reluctant to speak, and she clarified issues for readers. Lindsay Whitehurst, who is now writing the polygamy stories, is continuing the good job began by Adams.