Pounding the polygamy beat

Polygamy Under Attack Front

When Texas judge issued an order Monday allowing the parents in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to begin picking up their children, I noticed that the CNN headline was:

Polygamist moms can pick up their kids

That was at 12:54. By 1:36, it was changed to

Polygamist parents OK'd to pick up their kids

That's a good change. The FLDS had put the mothers of the siezed children front and center as part of a smart public relations move. Putting the older fathers out there would have just reminded the public of the polygamy and age differentials. It's smart for the FLDS to highlight the mothers but the press shouldn't follow suit. The original headline is a small example of the many problems we saw with media coverage of the sect. Frankly, much of the coverage was sensationalistic, unreflective and about an inch deep.

In a sea of horrible coverage, one reporter in particular is an exception. Brooke Adams has been covering polygamous families for the Salt Lake Tribune for years. Day after day, she reports hard news and keeps a blog devoted to the subject. This week, for instance, she noted that the last DNA reports would arrive on 51st District Judge Barbara Walther's desk and the state's abuse and criminal investigations would pick up speed. The first thing Texas authorities will be looking for is whether sect leader Warren Jeffs fathered any children with four girls he married between 2004 and 2006. Apparently the sect says that the marriages were never consummated but the state alleges otherwise:

The search warrant that allowed Arizona authorities to collect DNA samples from Jeffs a week ago laid out a chilling pattern of underage marriages.

Using bishop's records and photographs found at the YFZ Ranch, the Texas Attorney General's Office alleges:

1. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on Jan. 18, 2004, in Utah. The evidence: Wedding photos.

2. That the girl gave birth on Oct. 14, 2005, when she was 15. The evidence: Photos of the girl and Jeffs moments after birth; he is holding the newborn.

3. That Jeffs sexually assaulted a 12-year-old he married on July 27, 2006, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop's records and photographs.

4. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on July 22, 2004, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop's records.

5. A marriage between Jeffs and a 12-year-old girl on April 16, 2005, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop's records.

The DNA will show whether Jeffs and any of the girls are parents of any child at the ranch.

And if they do, the probe will likely snare others: the girls' parents and anyone else who knew and kept silent. No more floodlights; this time the state will be proceeding with laser-beam focus.

I didn't even see this reported elsewhere. One story that I wish we'd highlighted here was Adams' piece from April about how the YFZ Ranch raid echoed the Short Creek raid from the 1950s. It was one of the most prescient pieces of reporting I've read all year.

Thankfully Adams' work hasn't gone unnoticed. Kelly McBride highlighted her work for Poynter. Characterizing other reporters as gullible and sensationalistic, McBride provides examples of how Adams out reported them. She says that Adams' reliance on polygamous families instead of Texas authorities made the difference:

Some readers of Adams' coverage might see an overly sympathetic view of the FLDS. I see something different. Sometimes being a good reporter means taking on an unpopular cause, asking difficult questions. Yes, there are children in the FLDS church who have been forced into marriage and thus sexual relations, Adams says. But there are also families who don't do that, she says.

I actually agree that some of her coverage was overly sympathetic. But still, her stories included more real people than anyone else's. And she was healthily critical when no one else was. What made Adams' work different according to McBride?

*Knowledge. Adams has experience and history with the topic. That meant she knew more about the FLDS than most of her sources. She could spot myths and hyperbole and kept them out of her reporting.

*Thoroughness. Rather than simply reporting what Texas authorities were saying, Adams scrutinized all the court documents and then did her own reporting to verify or refute the evidence.

* Collaboration. Adams said her editor, Sheila McCann and her photography partner, Trent Nelson, were great supporters.

* Conviction. Maybe it helped that she was isolated in Texas, unable to see how her stories were playing back home. But Adams said she wondered why no other newsrooms were pursuing the same angle she was.

* Persistence. Getting FLDS families to open up is incredibly difficult. But Adams kept at it.

I can't imagine many papers in the country other than the Salt Lake Tribune having a full-time polygamy reporter but Adams' reporting sure does show the difference of having someone on the beat full-time.

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