Most major news outlets still use the term ‘Mormon,’ study shows, despite church’s wishes

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The Church Office Building, located at 50 E. North Temple, Salt Lake City, is home to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith's leaders are asking news outlets to be sure to use the church's full name in their reporting.

Even after President Russell M. Nelson urged the media to use the Utah-based faith’s full name — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and stop employing shortened forms or nicknames, most top national news sites were still using “Mormon” and “LDS” in their coverage a year later.

That’s one of the findings in a five-month study of 20 websites — including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Fox News and Forbes — by Public Square Magazine, an online publication for Latter-day Saints.

Between mid-July and December 2019, the survey found, 43% of 421 articles followed the faith’s preferred style.

Stories that mentioned the church in a significant capacity — 265 of the total — heeded the church’s recommendations 35% of the time.

Christopher Cunningham, a Public Square reporter in San Antonio, said he was “surprised” that even that many of the national media “were respecting the church’s request.” The Latter-day Saint writer expected the number to be much lower.

Of the articles that refer to the church directly in the headline (52 out of 421) only five followed the faith’s style, said Cunningham, who wrote a summary of the data. “Of those that refer to the church in the [headline], but don’t use one of the recommended short versions, 83% continue to use ‘Mormon,’ while the remainder use ‘LDS.’”

The church issued a style guide in the wake of Nelson’s August 2018 edict. It advises members and the media to use “the Church,” “Church of Jesus Christ” or “restored Church of Jesus Christ” when they need a shortened term.

Cunningham said he could not tell from the survey when, if ever, national media used any of those terms in subsequent references.

The church’s instructions were specifically to avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the faith or its followers. It is OK to use in proper names such as the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, or as an adjective in historical expressions such as “Mormon Trail.”

In March 2019, The Associated Press, which accounted for nearly 100 of the articles in the Public Square data and is the world’s largest arbiter of journalistic style, changed its guidelines to direct reporters to “use the full name of the church on first references, with ‘the church,’ ‘church members,’ ‘members of the faith’ preferred on second and later reference[s].” AP still allows for the use of “Mormons” and “Mormon” when “necessary for space or clarity or in quotations or proper names.”

The Salt Lake Tribune adopted similar style standards several months before AP’s update.

Public Square also found that 80 articles in its study included “negative editorializing.” Cunningham explained that to get a “negative” label, “portions of the article had to portray the church as discriminative, deceptive, secretive, repressive or insular.”

Of the articles with negative editorializing, 86% used the word “Mormon,” the summary explained, whereas stories without such material used that term 46% of the time.

“A mere 6% of articles that followed the [church’s] style guide included negative editorializing,” Cunningham wrote, “while 29% of articles that did not follow the style guide included negative editorializing.”

Public Square’s survey focused on national media “to limit the scope of the study,” Cunningham said. “In the future, we would like to determine which outlets report on the church the most often and analyze those, rather than simply the largest outlets.”

That research, he said, “will obviously include lots of local outlets like The Tribune.”