Wednesday, September 22, 2010

When Evangelism meets Immigration in the Newsroom

While the Danish cartoon controversy spurred on by the Jyllands-Posten was an instance of a mass medium wielding their freedom of speech at the risk of offending other religious faiths, the Salt Lake city-based paper The Deseret News is creating its own waves of controversy because it is using its freedom of speech to promote a particular faith. The paper's editorial board has been taking a beating for its liberal stance on illegal immigration, something contrary to the conservative nature of Utah's policies. As explained in a New York Times article, the publication is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which views Hispanic immigrants as "a vast potential constituency." While the LDS church does not directly review what The Deseret News prints, and despite the fact that a variety of faiths are represented in the news room, editor Joseph A. Cannon views the newspaper as a positive outlet for promoting the Mormon values of family and neighborly love to the Hispanic population. For others, perhaps it is doing so too aggressively, and to the detriment of journalistic standards of objectivism.

In a blog entry for The Tucson Citizen, David Safier explains that such "anti-immigration...hysteria is being ginned up for political purposes," but that in reality, the issue is much more complex. Not only does The Deseret's coverage of the issue lack objectivity, it also simplifies a much larger issue to conform with the LDS church's concern over saved souls versus the unsaved, the accepted versus the rejected.

This is not the first time a religious group has openly admitted to using the mass media for their own agenda. As Paul Soukup, S.J. details in his essay "Vatican Opinion on Modern Communication" (from Quoting God), the Catholic Church has heartily embraced the use of mass communication to further the faith formation of its laity, including to "[build] up the human community," much as The Deseret News is attempting to do by welcoming Hispanic immigrants. However, there is a distinction between the Catholic Church's Archbishop Fulton Sheen and the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which openly use knowledgeable clergy to broadcast religious messages, and the Salt Lake City newspaper, which is known as a mainstream paper despite the LDS church's ownership.

While it may be a good idea to have a publically Mormon journalist on staff discussing the openness of the LDS church to immigrants, regardless of their legality (much like American newspapers have designated Muslim journalists to cover topics of more sensitive religious nature), it meddles too much with journalism's proclaimed standards of fairness and objectivity for such a publication to slyly promote their own spiritual cause. Especially since, as the Times explains, several Latino Mormons have left the church over The Deseret Times' aggressiveness. Overall, this issue raises important questions about what is an acceptable (and effective) use of mass media by traditional religious groups.

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