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Lashing Out From Under Cover: Hey, Play Fair!

Mormons and the Media

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Newsweek correspondent Elise Soukup was happy to be asked to contribute to the magazine's recent cover story on Mitt Romney. It was headlined "A Mormon's Journey."

"When I saw the cover line, I kind of groaned," she says. "I do think it's unfair to put so much emphasis on his faith. I asked, 'Would we write "A Jew's Journey"?' "

Soukup is the only Mormon reporter at Newsweek. In fact, she is probably one of the few mainstream journalists outside Utah to write about the Republican presidential candidate who also shares his faith. And that, some Mormons say, is in part because people reared in their religion tend to shy away from the news business.

A handful of Mormon journalists have risen to national prominence, from the late muckraking columnist Jack Anderson to former CBS "Early Show" co-host Jane Clayson. And they make up a majority of the staff at Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ron Scott, a Massachusetts author who writes a blog called Catching Mitt -- and who says he and Romney share the same great-grandfather -- says most of the country's 5.5 million Mormons are wary of joining the media world. "It's so easy to get yourself in trouble with church members who will be critical of you," he notes.

The University of Utah graduate says his mother "wasn't thrilled" when he was part of the team that founded People magazine because "writing about lifestyles of the rich and famous" was seen as a frivolous pursuit. "It's tough enough being a journalist without a mother and father and 15 brothers second-guessing whether you're being a devout member of the church."

Stephen Stromberg, a church member who writes for the Economist, says, "Mormons often have large families to support, and journalists' salaries aren't as high as what you might get doing something else."

In reading coverage of Mormon matters, says Stromberg, a former Washington Post editorial writer, journalists "get details wrong all the time, to make the church look totally nuts. It seems like the writer might be trying to hint, 'My gosh, look at these crazy people.' "

Joel Campbell, a professor at the Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University, which has a sizable journalism program, says, "In our culture there's a lot of rigidity about not going against the norm, being a naysayer, and journalism by its nature involves questioning authority."

All too often, Campbell says, only non-Mormon leaders are quoted in stories about Romney and religion. "What bothers me about the coverage is that journalists usually go to experts in other faiths," he says.

Soukup, a Brigham Young graduate now on maternity leave, doesn't agree that journalism is anathema to most Mormons. But, she notes, "many LDS women don't tend to work in the workplace for the length of their career." And, she says, "journalists tend to be more liberal and Mormons tend to be more conservative."

She had to take an intern to her first Newsweek assignment -- a coffee-tasting arranged by Krispy Kreme doughnuts -- because Mormons don't use caffeine. (If the intern said the brew was "robust," Soukup scribbled that in her notebook.)

Soukup wrote a 2005 cover story on Mormonism that included an interview with Gordon Hinckley, the church's president. "That was kind of nerve-racking, sitting in the same room with one of the most important men spiritually," she says. Reaction from fellow church members was mostly positive, but there were complaints. "Some Mormons feel picked on in the press and are sensitive about what they read about the church," Soukup says.

Still, she doesn't feel hindered by her religion. "I felt it almost opened more doors for me because people were curious," she says.


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