In an article published in today’s Washington Post (and re-published in various places online), William Booth inaccurately writes:
- “Mormon pioneer Alma Dayer LeBaron had a vision when he moved his breakaway sect of polygamists to this valley…”
- “…the Mormon enclave…”
- “These Mormons, some who swear and drink beer…”
- “The Mormons, led by an increasingly public and outspoken Benjamin LeBaron…”
He also refers throughout to members of the polygamist community as “the Mormons” and “Mormon men.” The only point of clarification comes at the end of the fourteenth paragraph, which mentions, “Polygamy was banned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the official Mormon Church, in 1890.”
Journalists and Latter-day Saints alike (especially those who are both) should instantly recognize the problem. Referring to such groups as “Mormon” is inaccurate by journalistic standards (according to my gold standard, the Associated Press Stylebook). It’s also unfair to the millions around the world whom the term accurately describes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (official name) has worked hard to distinguish itself from such groups, with good reason.
Here’s part of an official statement about why (more available here, here and here):
The Associated Press style guide tells its reporters that the term Mormon “is not properly applied” to the other churches that resulted from the split after Joseph Smith’s death. It should be obvious why the AP has adopted that policy. It is widely understood that the word “Mormon” refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sends out “Mormon missionaries,” sponsors the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” and builds “Mormon temples.” Associating the term “Mormon” with polygamists blurs what should be a crystal-clear line of distinction between organizations that are entirely separate.
As a professional communicator, accuracy and clarity are my tools and my passion. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that, as communicators, we “have a unique opportuntiy to build trust in the world.” So it saddens me when a high-profile publication like The Washington Post fails to live up to my high standards. I think we should do something.
Thankfully, the Post has a policy in place to address such mistakes:
The Ombudsman serves as the reader’s advocate. He attends to questions, comments and complaints regarding The Post’s content.
The current Post Ombudsman is Andy Alexander . You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 202-334-7582.
I encourage you to contact Mr. Alexander now to express your disappointment in the Post’s inaccurate portrayal. Here’s a sample letter (which I sent):
Dear Andy Alexander:
As a journalist, I am beyond disappointed with the egregiously inappropriate use of the adjective “Mormon” in today’s Washington Post article, “Ambushed by a Drug War: Mormon Clans in Mexico Find Themselves Targets…”
“Mormon” is never appropriately used to describe polygamist sects. From the Associated Press Stylebook: “The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other … churches that resulted from the split after [Joseph] Smith’s death.”
Referring to these people as Mormons, especially in a high-profile publication like the Washington Post, smears the reputations of millions around the world who proudly claim that title as part of a church that has worked hard to distance itself from such groups. You also do a disservice to your readers, who deserve clarity and accuracy.
Please take the necessary steps to correct this error as soon as possible.
David J. Garcia
If you care about the reputation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–or just about journalistic standards, accuracy and clarity, please consider calling (202-334-7582) or emailing (firstname.lastname@example.org) Andy Alexander today! Thank you.
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