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Context and Controversy

Veteran newsman Ted Koppel, in a Washington Post opinion piece this morning, laments the passing of what he calls “a long-gone era of television journalism, when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.”

Koppel’s essay is an increasingly common refrain as traditional journalism undergoes a metamorphosis in the face of declining revenues and wholesale shifts of readers and viewers to the Internet. Context and balance are, more and more often, the casualties.

A case in point: On Saturday, 13 November 2010, the Church distributed a new administrative handbook to hundreds of thousands of lay leaders around the world. The handbook provides guidelines for administering local Church programs, serving members and ensuring continuity of Church operations around the world.

The previous evening, reporter Brian Mullahy of Salt Lake City’s CBS affiliate, KUTV 2, presented the station’s viewers with his interpretation of the significance of the handbook. From the nearly 200 pages of content, his report focused entirely on four short paragraphs included under the handbook heading “Homosexual Behavior and Same-Gender Attraction.” 

This content was then adorned with footage from general conference and protesters around Temple Square, followed by comments from two gay activists. Mullahy says, “Now, more than a month later, this,” implying that changes in the handbook were somehow linked to those events.

Prior to the airing of the story, Public Affairs received a call from a KUTV producer inquiring about the handbook. We were quick to supply the station with broad context of the revised handbook, what it meant for local Church congregations and consequently what it meant for thousands of KUTV’s viewers. The KUTV report made no reference to any of that. In fact, far from the language change in the handbook being the result of public pressure, the process of revising it began in 2007 and copies were printed months ago. The information supplied in the handbook on the topic of homosexuality is entirely consistent with existing Church resources and encourages reaching “out with understanding and respect to individuals who are attracted to those of the same gender.”

Were KUTV and other media justified in drawing attention to updated language in that one section? Of course. Was it presented in proper context and with the correct interpretation? Hardly. We all know that journalists will look for what they find “newsworthy,” but highly selective and misleading reporting is a disservice to the readers and viewers of KUTV as much as it is to the subject being covered.

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This blog is managed and written by staff of the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to provide journalists, bloggers, and the public with additional context and information regarding public issues involving the Church. For official news releases and statements from the Church, please also visit the MormonNewsroom.org home page.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.