Utah News Director Confesses

News Not Being Reported Truthfully -- Mormon Control and Influence Discourage Honest Media Reporting

from the Salt Lake Tribune




Byline: By Mike Youngren


Reporters in Utah regularly find themselves tripping over the hoop they're trying to jump through.

Their religious roots can derail an honest effort to provide the public with a clear and accurate story.

For example: measles.

When reporters learned a month ago that there was a minor outbreak of measles in southwest Salt Lake County, the health departments said all eight cases involved one family.

Rumor had it the family was polygamist.

Later, during an interview, the new City-County Health Director described the family as ``fundamentalist Christians.'' (The phrase ``beating around the bush'' and the word ``euphemism'' are closely related.)

TV and newspapers reported the measles story but stayed away from describing the family situation. I wonder what would have happened if the disease had been confined to the Utah Jazz or only to rich people. As the outbreak spread, reporters found themselves having to explain more details.

Officials were anxious those infected seemed unconcerned about mixing with other people and spreading the disease. When the number of cases reached nearly 50, health authorities told reporters they would answer any question regarding the nature of the family circumstance.

It was still touchy for the reporters -- most of whom didn't think the family relationship had much to do with the story.

``They socialize together'' was KUTV's solution.

``The group has family associations,'' KSL reported.

The director of state immunization announced a week ago that ``The victims all are polygamists who refuse to get vaccinated.'' Now it appears the polygamist lifestyle actually is keeping the disease contained.

The Salt Lake Tribune and KTVX used the ``P'' word about a week ago.

``The public interest was too great,'' says Channel 4 executive producer Ken Connaughton. ``You can't cover up the facts.'' Sure you can, Connaughton -- if everyone uses the same euphemism and the public understands when you say ``this'' you mean ``that.'' Before long a new language is created.

Polygamy in the western United States has common origin. The Manifesto issued 104 years ago by the LDS Church outlawed the practice of plural marriage within the religion -- but it didn't make polygamy go away.

Rick Spratling once had a desire to spend some of KUTV's money and time on the subject of polygamy. The award-winning documentary producer and keen observer of Utah ways believed there would be standing-room-only interest. The general manager and news director rejected the idea. ``I can't remember why,'' Spratling says. ``Maybe it was because of what they perceived to be public values.''

Utah reporters regularly find themselves in other cities covering murder and other fundamentalist mayhem. The blood feud in the Ervil LeBaron family drained station travel budgets for nearly a decade. Local reporters in San Diego, Denver and El Paso viewed their Utah counterparts with glazed curiosity before quickly returning to the simplicity of their own crime stories.

I've spent many hours trying to explain Utah to reporters from other galaxies. Sometimes I deemed a fact unimportant. An NBC news producer screwed up his face at me in the midst of the John Singer standoff 16 years ago and shouted, ``You mean he's married to more than one woman -- too?''

``Oh yeah,'' I answered, ``didn't I tell you?''

Mike Youngren is a former television news director who lives in Salt Lake City

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Page Modified: May 18, 2005