What, then, deserves a correction?

colberttruthiness 1New York Times public editor Byron Calame has quite the challenging job. The Times is one of the most scrutinized papers in the world and Calame has to separate legitimate and illegitimate gripes over its reportage, story selection and headlines.

I encourage you to read his entire column from Sunday. He digs into a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story from April about women who have been prosecuted for violating El Salvador’s laws against abortion.

The story was written by Jack Hitt, a contributing writer to the Times, Harper’s and Mother Jones, among other publications. He’s written about abortion before for the Times.

Hitt interviewed two women who had been prosecuted under El Salvador’s abortion laws. D.C., who constitutes the bulk of the story, ends up receiving no punishment. But Carmen Climaco, the second and final key anecdote of the story, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Hitt says that she aborted a fetus at 18 weeks but that the abortion was recast as infanticide by strangling:

The truth was certainly — well, not in the “middle” so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She’d had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.’s, something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It’s just that she’d had an abortion in El Salvador.

That’s how the story ends — quite dramatically. The only problem is that Hitt’s reporting was less than adequate. Here’s how Calame summarizes the problems:

It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.

Calame eloquently and diplomatically lays out many of the problems with the piece. He interviews Hitt and Times editors about the reporting and editing. He finds out that Hitt never checked the court documents on the case while preparing his story. This is particularly egregious since the Climaco anecdote was the only one supporting Hitt’s claim that women go to prison for 30 years for nothing more than abortions in El Salvador.

Hitt says that no editor or fact-checker ever asked him if he had checked court records. Hitt tells Calame he thought getting the documents would be difficult. Without any difficulty at all, however, Calame got a stringer in El Salvador to walk into the court building without making any prior arrangements and walk out with an official copy of the court ruling.

It turned out the only 18-week estimate mentioned in the court ruling came from a doctor who hadn’t seen any fetus and whose deductions, based on the size of the uterus 17 hours after the birth, were found by the three judges to be flawed, Calame notes. The panel that convicted Climaco used other medical evidence from a physician who conducted an autopsy to determine that the pregnancy had a 38- to 42-week duration. Another autopsy finding showed that the lungs of the victim floated when submerged in water, which indicated the baby had breathed at birth. That means that, unlike what Hitt dramatically said in his final lines, Climaco’s baby didn’t die under circumstances that would be legal in the United States.

Hitt also used an unpaid translator who consults for an abortion advocacy group in El Salvador for his interviews with D.C. and Climaco. That same group later used the Times story for fundraising purposes.

Anyone who has followed the sorry state of abortion coverage is disappointed but not likely to be surprised by all this. We’ve discussed the interesting politics of choosing anecdotes in the past. But what I do find surprising is how Calame’s thorough reporting to unveil — and diplomatic efforts to correct — the errors in the story are completely rebuffed by Times management.

After committing an error, a quick correction is the easiest course of action. Reporters hate getting things wrong, but when you do you just have to admit it and improve your work in the future. Let’s look at how the Times handled its error:

After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.

The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”

But let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt. That was before the court documents had been translated into English. Surely after that happened, the paper set about issuing a correction, right?

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

As accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Let’s see, the court ruling was in 2002. The story was written in 2006. How, then, is the article as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Am I missing some basic logic about the space-time continuum?

NYTmagnifyingglassFurther, the debate isn’t over whether The New York Times, er, El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized. The debate is over whether Hitt accurately portrayed the facts of the case. This is nothing short of a complete breakdown of the standards and editing process at the Times.

Abortion is such a contentious issue. It simply must be handled with extreme carefulness and a diligent checking of facts. Calame seems exasperated by the editors’ steadfast refusal to correct the error. Unfortunately, I think this does quite a bit to further erode any reputation of fairness the Times clings to on this issue.

Another note — a quick Google search on Hitt shows that Mother Jones isn’t the only liberal publication for which he writes. Calculate, for a moment, the probability of the Times sending a Roman Catholic from National Review down to El Salvador to freelance on the issue. I’ll save you the time. It’s zero. Perhaps the Times just wants to make sure that the folks who cover the issue have similar personal views on abortion as Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse. But after all the criticism Times editors have faced over their abortion reporters this year, you wonder how that’s working out for them. Unless abortion advocacy — and not truthfulness — is the goal of this newspaper.

Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. Anyone out there want to attack Calame’s perspective and defend Times management?

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a climbing wall

Bottle of ChampagneI usually spend New Year’s Eve in New York City out and about until the wee hours. This year I went to church for a special concert by the Concordia Theological Seminary’s fantastic Kantorei.

The service, which marked Christ’s circumcision, also featured a wedding of two of my friends. I was rather impressed how well my pastor preached on the two occasions. The other thing I was impressed by was just how many people were there. Apparently going to church on New Year’s Eve is quite common for Christians who are better than not me!

So I was pleased to see new religion reporter Jacqueline Salmon‘s piece in The Washington Post on evangelical churches and megachurches that host New Year’s Eve services and parties. The cute subhead? “Many Celebrations Across Region Focus on Religion Rather Than Spirits”:

Such large and elaborate New Year’s celebrations are growing increasingly popular among evangelical churches. The events provide the faithful with family-friendly festivities and — just as important, say church leaders — they are an attractive way to help pull unbelievers into the Christian fold.

As the year draws to a close, “people want to make positive changes in their lives,” said Georgette Patterson, director of marketing for New Life Anointed Ministries International, known as The Life. At church New Year’s Eve celebrations, “they hear a message that is uplifting.”

At megachurch McLean Bible, the all-night New Year’s Eve party for teenagers has swelled from a few hundred to 1,500 kids in the past three years. Last night’s celebration, at McLean Bible’s worship complex off Route 7 in Fairfax County, featured Christian rock bands, video games, a climbing wall and movies.

At midnight, several hundred youthful attendees were expected to come forward to be “saved,” said Denny Harris, the church’s director of ministry operations.

I wonder how they are able to predict how many people will convert? Also, I love the scare quotes around saved.

Still, Salmon covered churches from Maryland, Virginia and Washington for the piece, which was nice. A good story all around.

Holy Day Whack-a-Mole

whackamoleMerry sixth day of Christmas to all. We have commented previously on some of the downtick in War on Christmas media hype. I noticed there were also fewer stories claiming that Christmas was created by Christians to replace pagan holidays. And then in a really interesting and important piece by The Washington Post‘s Shankar Vedantam, the allegation rose again:

Perhaps the earliest claim on Christmas was the strategic decision by the early church to Christianize non-Christian festivals that occurred around the winter solstice.

“In the early centuries of the church, they debated whether they should fix a date to celebrate the nativity,” explained [Jack] Santino [who studies folklore and popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio]. “They chose December 25: ‘People are celebrating the birth of the sun, and we should convince them to celebrate the birth of the Son.’”

Now I have no idea how far along in his studies Mr. Santino is, but both he and Vedantam should know there is more to the discussion of how Christmas came to be celebrated. As I wrote last year, I realize this belief about Christmas’ pagan origins is a popular notion. But it should not be inserted into stories on blind faith. The theory is only a few centuries old, created and widely trumpeted by those who thought the liturgical calendar was pernicious. But the important thing is that there is another, older theory. I’m not saying one theory is right and one theory is wrong, but reporters should not just pick one theory and run with it.

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

The point of Vedantam’s piece is the relationship between commerce and Christmas. In his excellent book The Sacred Santa, religion professor Dell DeChant shows how Christmas is a holy season in this country but it’s not Christian. The liturgical season extends from Thanksgiving — or earlier — until after the last post-Christmas sale. Worship centers are not churches but malls and Santa is the incarnation of our consumerism god. We even take children to the worship centers to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him their hopes and dreams. And we keep icons of him at home.

Here’s how Vedantam characterizes the change:

Business magnates who had once protested that holidays such as Christmas were a drain on the economy spotted the business potential of Christmas and encouraged the idea of gift-giving among family. Where Christmas gifts had once been primarily about charity, advertisers and marketers encouraged the notion that Christmas was primarily a family celebration and stressed the importance of reciprocal gift exchanges for friends and relatives. By the 20th century, American marketing geniuses led by Coca-Cola had seized on the advertising potential of Santa Claus. Although Santa’s ancestors in Europe and Asia had various religious connotations, the modern Santa is an American invention, with growing appeal in Europe and around the world.

German immigration had quite a bit to do with the uptick in Christmas, of course. Germans celebrated Christmas both as a religious day and family day. The hearth and home aspects were a bit too alluring to reject, even if the religious aspects are regularly dismissed. Still, it’s a great and important idea that Vendantam explores.

Photo via Flickr.

Merry Third Day of Christmas!

threefrenchhensThere is so much that could be said about mainstream media coverage of Christmas this year. Religion reporter Frank Lockwood — who is moving to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette — had a post on his blog about a trend he’s witnessed. He looks at a few examples of mainstream media ridiculing Christianity during the Christmas season.

I noted last week my pet peeve about confusing the 12 Days of Christmas with the last 12 days of Advent. The Washington Post ran a 12 Days of Christmas feature that invited readers to share holiday stories. In Saturday’s paper, the stories had absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Christ. I also think it’s interesting how the Post handles its liturgical-calendar error:

We hoped we’d get a few responses when we asked you to share your holiday thoughts and memories. Instead, we’ve gotten bags of mail. Our mother, who was particular about such things, would want us to acknowledge that, yes, the Twelve Days of Christmas actually begin Dec. 25. We hope you will forgive the license we take.

Well then, no big deal, I guess. And I’m sure the Post will mark the New Year in March and Thanksgiving in July, too. Anyway, it is because of silliness such as this that I must commend Stephanie Innes of the Arizona Daily Star for her piece on how the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and lasts for 12 days. She tells the story of Manny Chavez, a Roman Catholic in the region who is encouraging neighbors to celebrate the full Christmas season:

The mistake many Christians make when they take down their Christmas tree and lights Dec. 26 is thinking Christmas is over, religious leaders say. The Twelve Days of Christmas don’t begin until the night of Dec. 25, and end with festivities the night of Jan. 5 — “Twelfth Night” — the night before The Epiphany, the jubilant night many believe Shakespeare wrote about in his famous play.

“Functionally, in American culture the Christmas season begins after Thanksgiving and then the day after Christmas you take the lights down and it’s over,” said the Rev. Jim Hobert of the South Side St. Monica’s Catholic Church. “Technically in the Catholic calendar, the time after Thanksgiving is Advent, a time of penitential preparation for Christmas. Then Christmas starts the party and it ends with the baptism of the Lord.”

The piece is mostly from a Hispanic Catholic perspective, but it includes calendrical differences between the Eastern Church and the Western. It also has sidebars on where readers may celebrate the Christmas season after Dec. 25 and on the background behind the Christmas story and The Epiphany. Considering how lame most media coverage of Christmas is, I think more reporters could look to report more interesting stories such as Innes’.

I wrote about the so-called Christmas Wars for the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. It’s an opinion piece but it deals with media coverage of the wars, so you may be interested in it. I argue that fighting about how — and even whether — to celebrate Christmas has been one of Americans’ favorite pastimes for many years:

From the beginning, Mayflower Pilgrims didn’t mark Christmas, considering it “diabolical” because its celebration was encouraged by their enemy, the pope. The Puritans’ political influence was so strong in Massachusetts that the commonwealth banned the holiday’s observance until 1681. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics in Maryland, Anglicans in Virginia and Lutherans in Pennsylvania celebrated Christmas.

Interdenominational disagreements and language barriers prevented the development of any broad consensus on how to celebrate the holiday. But in the early 19th century, businessmen and religious leaders began calling for a wider and more public observance of Christmas. Quakers, Congregationalists and Calvinists still balked at marking the day because of its commercialism and revelry. But acceptance of the holiday haltingly grew. By 1860, 16 of 33 states legally recognized Christmas. It took another 10 years before Congress made it a federal holiday.

But the debate over how much religious content should be in the celebration of Christmas continued. Liturgical Christians regarded the day as sacred because they believed it marked God’s incarnation in Jesus. But the Baptist Teacher, a Sunday school periodical, editorialized in 1875: “We believe in Christmas — not as a holy day but as a holiday. . . . Stripped as it ought to be, of all pretensions of religious sanctity and simply regarded as a social and domestic institution.”

I received quite a bit of interesting feedback on the piece, but my favorite was from a pastor who told me he began his Christmas Eve sermon by noting that if Christmas hadn’t become a secular holiday, there would be many fewer people in the pews right now. He continued that he only wished Madison Avenue could promote other holy days such as the less popular Ascension Day.

Broken Media

brokenPeter Kann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and chairman of Dow Jones, had a wonderful piece in The Wall Street Journal that I encourage you to read. Noting that CNN’s pre-election programming had names like “Broken Borders,” “Broken Government,” “Broken Politics,” he says the media, too, are in need of some mending.

Because it’s that special time of year when people make lists, he lists 10 current trends in media that ought to disturb us.

Each of the trends is general to all media, but I think more than a few should be heeded by those who cover religion, such as the problems and pitfalls inherent in pack journalism and the exaggerated tendency toward pessimism. Here are a few others:

The issue of conflict and context. On most issues most Americans are not on polar extremes. On abortion, for example, most seek a sensible center. Where is that center reflected in media coverage that mainly portrays rabid feminists or irate pro-life activists? Balance is not achieved by the talk show format of two extremists yelling at each other. And how many of us recognize our own communities from their depiction on local TV news shows — a nonstop montage of mayhem, murder, rape, arson, child molestation and more?

Social orthodoxy, or political correctness. These are reflected in a media whose job is not to parrot prevailing fashions, but to question, probe and thereby challenge them. Businessmen are not, by definition, greedy, and environmentalists, by definition, saintly. Third World poverty is not, by definition, a result of overpopulation as opposed to inane economic policies. And so on.

Vitally important tangent here. I believe that men are more likely to list and rank things than women are. I have no scientific evidence to support this claim save many discussions with men about, say, their “Seven Top Non-Alcoholic Beverages,” “Every Girl I Ever Kissed, 1987-96,” “Top 10 Christmas Films That Are Not Actually About Christmas” and “Top Five Reasons Ladainian Tomlinson is not as good as Walter Payton.”

The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

12daysochristmaslightsAll this week I have been serving long days on a jury.

Although I tried my best to get out of it, I found the entire experience absolutely riveting and educational. I cannot commend the work highly enough. Working with 11 very different people to come to unanimous agreement on a complicated case is difficult but very rewarding. In the end, we found the defendant guilty, which was a hard decision to make during this time of year.

While you’re serving you’re not allowed to surf the Internet, so my daily paper reading was greatly limited. One thing I did get to read was The Examiner, a free newspaper distributed in my city. Each day it has been running through the “12 Days of Christmas,” counting down to Dec. 25, with a picture of local readers acting out each verse of the song.

I know that many journalist types aren’t religious, but certainly someone at that paper knows that the 12 Days of Christmas run from Dec. 25 to January 6, right?

Those churches that keep the liturgical calendar, of which I am a member, are in the season of Advent right now (or Nativity Lent in the Eastern churches). It’s kind of the opposite of the American Christmas season. While other people are busy partying it up, we’re supposed to be in prayer and repentance. And then when everyone else is in post-Christmas mode, we’re celebrating a 12-day season.

I commend The Examiner for trying to do something to engage readers, but it’s kind of funny or sad how much newspapers miss the religious aspect of this time of year. One reader sent along this very funny chart in The Washington Post making fun of how vapid made-for-TV Christmas movies are. But a lot of mainstream media reports fit in that same genre with heartwarming stories that indicate the meaning of Christmas is anything but religious.

One area I would like to see reporters cover is what this time of year is like for Americans who are not Christian. The Boston Globe‘s Christopher Muther had a very funny entry in that category with his story about how young Jewish singles party on Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve is perhaps the most important night of the year for the city’s Jewish singles. While Boston’s gentiles are tucked away with their eggnog, plastic Santas, and enough sugar cookies to feed the population of Luxembourg, something massive has happened in the clubs. Christmas Eve has evolved into Jewish Valentine’s Day.

Muther talks about the Matzo Ball, which is a popular Boston party held on Christmas Eve. It’s facing competition this year from Let My People Go, a New York-based group. He spends quite a few paragraphs talking about all the heavy imbibing at these parties.

Mayshe Schwartz, a Brookline-based Orthodox rabbi who wears a baseball cap embroidered with Hebrew symbol chai (which means living) and answers to the nickname Schwartzy, thinks the advent of Christmas Eve as Jewish Valentine’s Day has more to do with loneliness than the consumption of large quantities of booze.

“At some point, many Jews feel isolated at Christmas,” he says. “There’s a whole country celebrating something, and you can only run with it so far, then at some point, you can’t. You don’t have a Christmas tree, stores are closed, everything you’re watching is ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ It was only logical that these giant singles parties would evolve from this.”

The story was rather fluffy but the actual topic — singles parties on Christmas Eve — doesn’t really lend itself to much substance. It would be nice to see more in-depth stories about what it’s really like to be a member of a minority religion.

You take the good, you take the bad

factsoflifeSometimes I think the best thing a reporter can do to improve his craft is be interviewed by another reporter for publication.

I have been interviewed as a subject matter source by a few different reporters and have experienced a wide range of results. There is nothing more frustrating than being misquoted or misunderstood by a reporter. If it happens to you, you’re much more careful with your sources. You take the time to make sure you understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to say.

Many of my sources tell me horror stories about being mishandled by reporters. Just this week I was talking to a friend of mine, a former reporter who goes to The Falls Church, one of the churches that just split from The Episcopal Church. I asked her what she thought of the media coverage of the story and she said, “Well, what do you expect? Of course they get the story wrong.” Without getting into the merits of the coverage, she said her frustration is that the story is being portrayed as about homosexuality when she considers the story to be about being in a church that confesses the Gospel correctly.

Last week we looked at a couple of Neela Banerjee’s stories. One dealt with people who identify both as homosexuals and evangelical Christians. The other looked at the response of various congregations to homosexuals. I enjoyed both stories, although I offered a few points of criticism.

Source Robert Gagnon wrote about his experience being interviewed by Banerjee. He felt that she misconstrued some of what he said. Here is how she characterized his views:

But for most evangelicals, gay men and lesbians cannot truly be considered Christian, let alone evangelical.

“If by gay evangelical is meant someone who claims both to abide by the authority of Scripture and to engage in a self-affirming manner in homosexual unions, then the concept gay evangelical is a contradiction,” Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said in an e-mail message.

“Scripture clearly, pervasively, strongly, absolutely and counterculturally opposes all homosexual practice,” Dr. Gagnon said. “I trust that gay evangelicals would argue otherwise, but Christian proponents of homosexual practice have not made their case from Scripture.”

In fact, both sides look to Scripture. The debate is largely over seven passages in the Bible about same-sex couplings. Mr. Gagnon and other traditionalists say those passages unequivocally condemn same-sex couplings.

Gagnon reprinted his four paragraph response to Banerjee’s question of whether there are gay evangelicals. The most notable criticism he had was that he answered her question both in the affirmative and the negative. However, she only quoted from his “no” response.

His other criticisms were that she made it look like he didn’t know that Christian proponents of homosexual practice had attempted to substantiate their views using Scripture; that she misstated his views about whether gay men and women can be considered Christian; and that she neglected to include his emphasis on the importance of love. You can read his whole case here.

One thing I appreciated about his critique is that he also took the time to praise Banerjee for her good work in the article, as he did here:

On Ms. Banerjee’s behalf I can say that I’ve seen far worse reporting on this issue. At least Ms. Banerjee solicited my comments, was polite, and actually used most of three of my sentences. Moreover, she ended her article on the helpful note that relatives of one “gay Christian” in a homosexual relationship tell him, “We love you, but we’re concerned.” These features of her article and reporting should be applauded even as we continue to seek improved reporting on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality from the Times and other major media publications.

This business of reporting on complex religious stories is a long ball game. With each story, reporters try to include the right perspectives, accurately portray contentious and complex views and put it all in a nice package on a tight deadline. If sources or interested parties think mistakes were made, they would do well to follow Gagnon’s example of offering criticism while putting the best construction on perceived mistakes.

Scrutiny and opportunity

smootWe cover Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney so much because so much of the mainstream coverage of him delves into religion. Many stories about Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mention his ties to his church. Other stories obsess over how voters of varying religions will react to a Romney candidacy for president.

And yet I haven’t seen any stories that ask the questions veteran religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack asks in The Salt Lake Tribune. She looks at how a Romney candidacy would affect the Mormon church. There has been so much focus on evangelicals and not enough on Mormons.

It’s a nice and lengthy story that includes many perspectives. Some folks think the church will benefit from the increased scrutiny, some don’t. She looks at how the Mormon church handles public relations during times of increased scrutiny and what previous Mormon politicos have had to deal with:

In the past dozen years or so, LDS officials have worked overtime to send the message that Mormons are Christians and they don’t worship founder Joseph Smith. They enlarged the words “Jesus Christ” on the church’s logo and increased the number of times Christ is mentioned in speeches and magazine articles.

Hinckley has also downplayed the more unusual elements of the faith. He has dismissed the pre-1978 ban on blacks becoming priests and the practice of polygamy, which ended officially in 1890, as “in the past.” He has written inspirational books without using any Mormon language. He welcomed the world to Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

All of these efforts may help Romney, who could hardly look more All-American. His answer to questions about underwear could be an ad he once ran that showed him bare-chested on a beach.

“If you listen to Mitt and [President Hinckley] long enough,” says [Ron] Scott [a journalist], “you might conclude that Mormons are really just Episcopalians who wear funny underwear.”

But some members are wary that in an effort to explain the LDS faith to a critical audience, officials may end up watering it down.

“Downplaying temple garments? What else do we want to demystify and de-weird for the sake of gains in popular opinion?” asks Steve Evans, a Seattle attorney who helps run the Mormon blog bycommonconsent.com. “I’m all in favor of clarifying misconceptions, but eventually I am worried that we lose something vital.”

That’s a long excerpt, I know. But that section flows together so well. Fletcher Stack has covered Mormons, and other religious adherents in Utah, for the Tribune since 1991. She edited and published Sunstone, an intellectual Mormon journal. Her experience and knowledge show.

Fletcher Stack deftly handles contentious issues and provides some much-needed perspective for Romney coverage. In particular, I like the way she weaves in some of the conflicted feelings people in the church have without overdramatizing it.

Note: if you would like to discuss Fletcher Stack’s article or other related coverage, please comment below. However, this comment thread should not include people who want to discuss Mormonism itself. This is not the blog to engage in theological disputes.