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An open letter to the Vancouver Sun

Patricia Graham, EditorThe Vancouver SunDear Ms. Graham:I know you are busy with all of that Olympic stuff going on up there in British Columbia, but when the flame burns out, here is something to consider about how you use the terms "Mormon" and "Mormon fundamentalist" in your reporting, particularly as Mormons open a new temple in Langley.As both a journalist and a Mormon, I am continually dismayed that the Vancouver Sun and associated CanWest wire service choose to describe the British Columbia polygamist group with the terms "Mormon sect" and the "fundamentalist Mormon." In one column, it was even discussed as the "Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in connection with Warren Jeffs, the jailed FLDS leader. There are at least three reasons I think your terminology is misguided and errant journalistic practice.1. Accuracy: Use of the term, "Mormon" to describe the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) group confuses readers. Case in point on how this plays out around the world: My brother was recently on an airline flight, when an educated businessman said, "Oh, you are a Mormon. That means you can have more than one wife." NOT. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the nickname "Mormon church" (note the lower case "c" as required by Associated Press Style) abandoned polygamy in 1890.Even if the polygamist groups want to describe themselves as "Mormons," then it would be appropriate to report, "Members of the Bountiful, B.C., branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) group who describe themselves as 'Mormons' are not part of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) which renounced polygamy in 1890."My family, including those who migrated to Alberta in the late 1800s, haven't practiced polygamy for generations. To most of us "Mormons" it is a historical footnote, not part of our daily practice of Christian living. Allowing sources to self-describe themselves and then note others do not agree with such a term may be a way to balance this. Of course, the LDS Church asserts that the polygamist groups have no right to use the term "Mormon" and discourage the use altogether.2. You are out of step with the best journalism in North America. National Geographic recently did a large cover story on the FLDS, and an e-mail from an editor said they were careful to delineate between LDS and FLDS. The Vancouver Sun could do well to learn from NatGeo's careful editing practices. Here's an example of a pretty good explanatory paragraph from the article:"Colorado City is a town with special significance for those of Foneta's faith. Together with its sister community of Hildale, Utah, it is the birthplace of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous offshoot of the Mormon church, or LDS. Here in the 1920s and '30s, a handful of polygamous families settled astride the Utah-Arizona border after the leadership of the Mormon Church became increasingly determined to shed its polygamous past and be accepted by the American mainstream. In 1935 the church gave settlement residents an ultimatum: renounce plural marriage or be excommunicated. Practically everyone refused and was cast out of the LDS."Certainly, the Vancouver Sun could add its own reference to Bountiful and Crestor groups to this narrative. Admittedly, LDS members believe that it was God's will that changed the course of history, not a desire to be accepted by the American mainstream. But give credit to National Geographic for really trying. The Vancouver Sun seems to not care.I don't know if you subscribe to the Associated Press Style Guide up North, but the guide clearly states that the term, "Mormon" is not accurately applied to groups outside of the Salt Lake City-based LDS Church. Most AP stories make the differences between FLDS and LDS clear. Here's the entry: "The term 'Mormon' is not properly applied to the other ... churches that resulted from the split after (Joseph) Smith's death."Along with National Geographic, other news outlets have successfully navigated the pitfalls of the "Mormon" term. When looking at the Spokane Spokesman-Review's coverage of the B.C. polygamist sect, respected investigative reporter Bill Morlin was able to clearly explain the difference.3. You are not serving your readers. While some may argue it's just a "convention" or "shorthand," journalists ought to help their readers understand nuances in religious belief, not perpetuate over-generalizations or inaccuracies. Even the term "fundamentalist Mormon" really isn't accurate. If anyone practices polygamy in the LDS Church, they are excommunicated. In this sense, if someone is excommunicated from the LDS Church, how can they still be called "Mormon?"Elder Quentin L. Cook, an LDS apostle, said modern-day Mormons "have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect." Of course, the Sun never allows such facts to get in the way of a good story.I will allow that FLDS members continue to call themselves Mormons, but I hope that good journalists could draw a distinction. Some will also argue that the FLDS and LDS use the same scriptures and have similar practices. For all intents and purposes, they are separate bodies, with different leadership and their practices have certainly diverged since the 1920s (even earlier).Whether the FLDS really practice traditional or fundamental Mormonism that resembles that practiced in the late 1800s can certainly be argued. Since the Olympics are on the brain, it's like saying the luge is the same as skeleton. Yes, they are both sliding sports, but certainly can't both be lumped together as the "luge." Neither can "Mormon" be accurately be applied to both groups.By continuing to connect the term "Mormon" with both LDS and FLDS groups, the Sun uses a generalization that does not serve your readers and shows disregard for the diversity in your community. In fact, the practice continues to perpetuate inaccuracies about the 22,000 members of the LDS faith in British Columbia (13 million worldwide). Is the Vancouver Sun so beholden to its "convention" that reporters and editors cannot become more sophisticated in reporting and give journalistic respect to both groups involved?In just a few weeks, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will open a temple in Langley, British Columbia. Already, in a preview story, the paper used many references to "Mormons." So how do your readers keep the church that built this temple and the polygamists straight?Joel CampbellThe Mormon Media Observer


Readers are encouraged to write a kind, courteous and thoughtful letter to Vancouver Sun Editor Patricia Graham. Her e-mail is pgraham@vancouversun.com and the e-mail of Sun columnist Daphne Bramham, who frequently misuses "Mormon" and "Mormon fundamentalist" references in her articles, is dbramham@png.canwest.com. Please put the Mormon Media Observer on the cc: line with foiguy@gmail.com. The MMO will reprint excerpts of the best letters in a future column. A version of the above letter was also sent to Graham and Bramham. Any responses will also be published.