SALT LAKE CITY — As 1.15 million people watched the prime-time Labor Day football game between BYU and Navy, ESPN’s Rece Davis misstated the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU’s owner. He called it The Church of Latter-day Saints.
The university and the network enjoy a long, strong relationship that includes a partnership to keep Cougar football games on ESPN through 2026, so the error by Davis is likely no more than an innocent (albeit clumsy) mistake. But a new study shows that some news media that misrepresent the name of the church may be signaling bias.
“The main takeaway here is that those who don’t follow the church’s preferred style guide are much more likely to write negatively about the church in their story,” said Christopher Cunningham, the managing editor of Public Square Magazine, an online publication produced by church members.
In October 2018, President Russell M. Nelson said the use of Christ’s name as the centerpiece of the church’s name was not negotiable. Using the terms “Mormon” or “LDS Church” expunges Christ’s name and disguises his church, he said.
The church led by example, even renaming one of the faith’s iconic brands, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. In March 2019, The Associated Press updated its style guide largely based on the church’s new style guide, instructing AP member publications to use the full name of the church on first reference in a story and “the church” or “church members” afterward.
Soon after the AP update, Public Square launched its study, which looked at the 421 articles published by the 20 largest U.S. news media websites that mentioned the church from July to December 2019.
The study found that 10% of those stories followed the church’s style guide in headlines while the church’s full name appeared in the body of 43% of the articles.
“One of the main areas we’re interested in writing about is how the media interacted with the church and how the church was thought about in the public square,” Cunningham said. “We ran the study to see how the church was being written about and how often it was written about negatively versus not negatively.”
The AP Stylebook’s entry about the church does not fully agree with the church’s style guide, which specifically asks media not to use the terms “Mormon,” Mormon church,” “LDS,” “LDS Church” and “Church of the Latter-day Saints.” The AP entry defines the use of “Mormon” and “Mormons” as acceptable, though only “when necessary for space or clarity or in quotations or proper name.”
Cunningham said some reporters who used a version of the term “Mormon” more often wrote negatively about the church.
To define what was negative, Public Square used a definition created a decade ago for peer-reviewed studies of media reports about Mitt Romney’s presidential run. That definition identified negative editorializing in a news article as portraying the church as discriminative, deceptive, secretive, repressive or insular.
Public Square’s study found 80 articles with negative editorializing. Of those, 86% used the term “Mormon.” Of the study’s 341 articles without negative editorializing, 46% used “Mormon.”
Furthermore, Cunningham said, just 6% of articles that followed the church’s style guide included negative editorializing while 29% of articles that did not follow the style guide included negative editorializing.
“Negative content about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was significantly correlated with also using the word ‘Mormon’ to describe the church or its members,” the study concluded.
The study didn’t attempt to explain the correlation.
“The data is interesting on its own,” Cunningham said.
He said he noticed that the Los Angeles Times published two profiles of church members. One was a simple piece about a business run by an active church member that correctly used the church’s full name. The other was about a member who no longer was active in the faith and used the phrase “Mormon church.”
Cunningham thought that maybe the reporters followed the phrases used by the stories’ subjects, but the person who no longer was actively associated with the church used its full name correctly in other interviews.
“It seemed like the best indicator is that when (a reporter) was thinking about the church in a negative light and had negative feelings about the church, they would be less likely to want to respect the church’s request about how it’s named,” Cunningham said. “Whereas if a journalist, in articles that were neutral or positive about the church, they would be more inclined to be deferential to the church’s request or to respect that.”
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, told the Deseret News last year that the job of a journalist is to identify people and institutions correctly, including the church.
“If it’s your name, it’s your name,” he said.
But Public Square found that the news media in 2019 still predominantly used “Mormon” to refer to the church. Still, Cunningham went into the study expecting it to be more widespread.
“One thing that surprised me about the data was I expected the adoption rate of the style guide to be much lower,” he said. “I was impressed by the number of articles that adhered to the style guide. Forty-three percent adhered to it. That speaks well of national journalists. They’re trying to be respectful.”
Public Square is supported by the Elizabeth McCune Institute for Faith in the Public Square and the John A. Widtsoe Foundation Center for Global Latter-day Saint Scholarship and Life at the University of Southern California.