SALT LAKE CITY — Inside the newsroom this week the topic of names and labels came front and center when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would change its style guide to focus on the full name of the church, rather than support shorthand names that have been embraced over time.
From the church's perspective, this is not simply a question of usage and style. It's a correction to accurately reflect the name of the church, that has not changed since it was given in 1838. As church President Russell M. Nelson said last week:
“The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will."
Journalists throughout the world do not weigh the doctrinal merits of any church, other than as it reflects behavior. But they do seek after accuracy and embrace style guides for their organizations, including the Associated Press Stylebook, which we follow; The New York Times Manual of Style and usage; The Chicago Manual of Style; and others. The naming conventions of all churches are represented. Specific regional names or uses unique to an organization are also included in the style guides adopted by each news organization.
Fundamentally, there is no Mormon church nor Latter-day Saint (LDS) church. Yet over the decades those terms have been accepted, perhaps as a way to draw distinction from other Christian denominations, or in an effort to reclaim a term (Mormon) that was once used as a slur against church members.
Church members believe Mormon was an ancient prophet who was the primary writer and editor of the Book of Mormon, scripture that together with the Bible the faithful believe contains the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So when the church, which owns the Deseret News, issued its statement to members and the world, I was asked by journalists and other media how this would affect the Deseret News moving forward.
Here's what I said:
“Journalists, whether here at the Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune or elsewhere, typically allow organizations and individuals to self-identify. I see no reason not to maintain this same level of journalistic integrity.”
This is not without its challenges, and we are evaluating what to do, for example, with the section of Thursday's newspaper called Mormon Times that specifically reflects the lives and lifestyles of Latter-day Saints. The church itself has many internal references on websites that reflect the name Mormon.
So we will do everything we can to accurately reflect the church, just as we do the Catholic Church or with the teachings of Islam for example. It's the same journalistic standard for organizations that reflect diversity. News organizations typically accept how they identify themselves.
For example, the Diversity Style Guide offers the following guidelines as it relates to people of color:
"People in the United States who share a lineage that can be traced directly or indirectly to Africa. Black and African American do not necessarily mean the same thing and individuals may prefer one term over the other. It’s best to ask."
It then adds the following: "Some Black people do not identify as African American. This lineage, while collective, contains a diverse array of histories, cultures and experiences. This includes, but is not limited to, Black, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino and African immigrants living in the United States.
The LGBT community has continued to expand its use of terms in search of inclusion. The New York Times wrote an interesting explanation of this in a piece by Michael Gold headlined The ABCs of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A +. Each letter now represents different groups of people, with the "+" symbol offering the greatest inclusion.
Again, accuracy demands that news organizations look to how organizations or individuals wish to be identified and then respectfully, over time, make adjustments.
It will take a while for those who put together style guides to consider any changes as it relates to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And there are challenges to determine how best to communicate quickly when shorthand uses have been so common. But just because it is difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.