In Faculty News, Journalism

Two Brigham Young University professors found in a recent study that the media largely misrepresents and misunderstands the Latter-day Saints’ practice of baptisms on behalf of deceased relatives.

Kris Boyle, assistant professor, and Joel Campbell, associate professor, added to the impressive and varied list of publications submitted by the BYU Communications faculty with their work Baptism of Fire: A Comparative Analysis of Media Coverage of the LDS Church’s Practice of Proxy Baptisms. Their analysis presents an objective look at news coverage generated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ practice of baptisms for the dead. The study also examines whether the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney influenced news coverage.

“We found that the national media largely misunderstands and misrepresents what Mormons believe and how proxy baptisms work,” Campbell said. “On the other hand, the Jewish media was much more willing to go out of their way to understand the issue and be conciliatory.”

The project was a response to the February 2012 disclosure that members of the LDS Church had submitted names of Holocaust victims and others for temple ordinances, including posthumous baptisms. These actions were in violation of a decade-old agreement between the LDS Church and the Jewish community and led to increased media coverage of the misunderstood ordinance.

“We came to the conclusion that journalists need to do a better job of understanding nuance doctrines of all faiths when reporting on religion,” Campbell said. “They need to be careful to actually study and understand specific doctrines, talk to members of that faith and have them explain it, understand it and then help them report the implications clearly.”

Baptismal ordinance coverage occurred during the height of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, at the peak of the “Mormon Moment.” Boyle and Campbell found that reporters chose to bring up Romney’s name in media coverage that was focused on other areas not involving Romney or his campaign.

According to Campbell, the affiliation that the media placed between Romney and the LDS ordinance was usually a good thing. “Particularly during the Romney campaign, reporters did well on reporting the nuances and sensitivity between Jews and Mormons. That included the LDS doctrine that the spirits of deceased persons can choose whether to accept the ordinances performed on their behalf.”

Boyle and Campbell hope that in the future, the LDS Church, along with all other religions, can be represented objectively and accurately. Their work was recently accepted into the Journal of Media and Religion and can be found there soon.

“This project illustrated that there is still a general lack of understanding when it comes to the important doctrine of the LDS Church,” said Boyle. “The Romney campaign helped the mainstream media become more informed about the church, but there is still room for better and more accurate coverage.”

To view more information concerning Baptism of Fire, click here.

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