Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Journalistic Practices and Biases

You've probably heard about this issue by now, if you're LDS or follow statements by LDS church leaders. Last week, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body in the church) delivered a speech at Brigham Young University-Idaho (formerly Rick's College — the No. 1 Junior College football program in the nation before it was disbanded) outlining the cause of religious freedom and what Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) can do to uphold it in modern times.

In the speech, he made numerous references to contemporary examples of Latter-day Saints in politics, and — because of its prevalence in mainstream America — church member's participation in the Proposition 8 passage, which limited California residents to marriage "between a man and a woman only."

In the speech, Elder Oaks allegedly "compared the backlash against those who voted for Prop 8 to the African American struggle for civil rights in the south." In his speech, Elder Oaks called for Latter-day Saints to stand up for their right to participate in the political arena and let their voices be heard in the public forum. I guess, in a sense, he issued a call for us to be active in our communities. He said,
"The greatest infringements of religious freedom occur when the exercise of religion collides with other powerful forces in society. Among the most threatening collisions in the United States today are (1) the rising strength of those who seek to silence religious voices in public debates, and (2) perceived conflicts between religious freedom and the popular appeal of newly alleged civil rights."
If you can't tell, here is where he began to focus on the reaction of Prop 8 opposers to positions held by many Latter-day Saints. But no matter the conflicts and silencers that raise themselves against us, Mormons should stand strong in defending their beliefs and rights to the public arena, just as any other race, culture, religion or people. Elder Oaks continued,
"Any such effort to have governments invade religion to override religious doctrines or practices should be resisted by all believers. At the same time, all who conduct such resistance should frame their advocacy and their personal relations so that they are never seen as being doctrinaire opponents of the very real civil rights (such as free speech) of their adversaries or any other disadvantaged group... We must insist on our constitutional right and duty to exercise our religion, to vote our consciences on public issues and to participate in elections and debates in the public square and the halls of justice. These are the rights of all citizens and they are also the rights of religious leaders."

Now, normally I don't get involved in issues and statements like this. Those who know me know the extreme agony I felt while contemplating the church's dialogue regarding Proposition 8 and my own relationships with those attracted to the same gender.

But I cannot sit by as my church leaders are vehemently attacked by opponents claiming to "know what he's trying to say." On Tuesday, I discovered a link to a blog by Fox 13 (Salt Lake City) executive producer Monica Bielanko that did little more than belittle the LDS church and attack it's leaders and representatives, with little rational argument. Bielanko establishes her "objectivity," as any well-meaning professional journalist would, at the beginning of her post:
"I will give you this. I still have issues. Always will. But my lingering rage anger doesn't negate that when the church is full of shit, the church is full of shit."
Such blatant use of profanity in introducing her feelings, followed by a tiresome diatribe of how she balled to her editors when "the big bad LDS PR people" made her delete a recent tweet.

You see, Bielanko broke a long-established tradition in the journalism-public relations/love-hate relationship: the media embargo. This embargo states that when an issue of pressing importance is released early to various media outlets, they should be extremely careful not to divulge the privy information before a reasonable time (usually 24 hours later). The embargo goes both ways; when I worked with a college PR entity, we received a set of rankings and statistics from BusinessWeek magazine with an attached embargo for that Friday at 4 p.m. We were given the rankings so we could prepare a release of our own to show our viewers, but nothing should be posted before the embargo was lifted.

Bielanko strictly broke the embargo by tweeting information pertaining to the speech 15 minutes before 3 p.m., the established embargo date. Although she later deleted it, I have obtained a copy of the tweet, which read:
"LDS apostle gives speech at BYU-Idaho. The contents of which has my head exploding and FOX seeking a response from the NAACP. More at Five."
Bielanko later explained on her blog her "reasoning" for publishing the info:
"As the Associated Press story was embargoed until the ol' boy finished his speech I was careful not to divulge details, only that I was working on a story about a speech delivered by an LDS apostle and had sent a reporter to get reaction from the NAACP."

Representatives from LDS Public Affairs immediately contacted her and asked her to remove the tweet. While I do agree that these PR representatives were unnecessarily enraged by a 15 minute embargo-leak via Twitter, Bielanko nevertheless committed an act that is dishonest and unethical in journalistic circles. She sacrificed her ethics for a 15 minute scoop and her anger at the LDS church.

I understand her disaffection with the church; having grown up a Mormon, Bielanko discovered an unwanted pregnancy in her teenage years and terminated it, a practice discouraged by LDS church leaders and even condemned by some members. A former blog post elaborates,
"Before this I haven't talked about it at all. My friend ... is pregnant and getting married. Her bridal shower was yesterday. I'm jealous that she is having a baby. I am jealous because she chose the right way. I'm not really jealous, but I wish I would have done that. You know? I don't know what else to say. I'm so lost in life."

After learnign of this issue, I understand a little more while this reporter is sincerely disaffected with the church. But because of this irrational rage and anger against all things Mormon, her editors and producers should not allow her to report or cover (in any way) anything that has to do with the LDS church. At a media outlet in Salt Lake City, that may relegate her to doing nothing but sound bites for high school soccer. But such is the apparent choice she made when she decided to voice her opinions "when the church is full of shit, the church is full of shit."

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