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Early newspaper accounts portrayed Mormons poorly

PROVO, Utah — Stories printed in early 19th century newspapers did little to allay fears about the new Mormon church and the efforts of its members to lead peaceful, productive lives.In fact, judging by the headlines and story direction, Mormons were thought to be lawbreaking fanatics who could only bring trouble.So said one of the presenters at the Twelfth Annual Religious Education Student Symposium at BYU Feb. 19.Sara D. Smith outlined her findings in a paper entitled "More Sinned Against Than Sinning."Smith researched newspaper stories about the Mormons in the special collections library in the Harold B. Lee Library on campus.In the National Intelligencer, published in Washington, D.C., from 1800 to 1867, Smith found reports claiming the Mormon people were setting the laws of the land "at naught" and organizing "banditti" to defend themselves. They were referred to as "deluded fanatics who give loose to their evil passions."The National Intelligencer collected, reported and summarized the slanted stories, influencing readers on the eastern coast, including lawmakers and politicians.People outside the church were referred to in the news stories as citizens, while members of the church were always "Mormons."Headlines declared stories titled "Mormon Difficulties," "Mormon Wars," and "More of the Mormons.""It is our opinion that the Mormons are the aggressors," said the writer of an Oct. 6, 1838 editorial, referring to an incident where "someone fought with knives and caused trouble" in a thinly veiled report where the writer had already concluded who was at fault.It wasn't until the massacre at Haun's Mill that the news editors started to express sympathy toward the church members' plight — not their cause but their situation, Smith said.An editorial in June 1839 condemned Missouri's treatment of the Mormons.However, there was never any sympathy expressed in the Illinois press over the expulsion of the LDS Saints, Smith said.Smith said the obvious negativity most undoubtedly made it more difficult for the Mormon church to succeed when it came to gaining statehood for the Utah territory and to fare well in other political battles.Smith said with the negative press reports and misinformation, it was no surprise that ordinary, good people were afraid of the LDS people."I would be," she said.