Young, gay Mormons and suicide: The Salt Lake Tribune tries to do the real numbers

It was one of the odder headlines I’ve seen lately: "Suicide fears, if not actual suicides, rise in wake of Mormon same-sex policy."

Underneath is a narrative of how last fall’s announcement of a revised policy on membership requirements for gay Mormons may have vastly increased Utah suicides.

After seven paragraphs came the whopper: The premise behind the story has no basis in fact. But it sounded true. It may still be true. Lots of observers think it's true.

We've heard this before: Truthiness strikes again. We can debate the facts later.

It’s not the way I would have written such a piece, but it does draw you in. You almost have to read the entire overture up to the clincher paragraph to see how it is done. Here’s how it starts:

The fears were there right from the start -- that the LDS Church's new policy on same-sex couples would make gay Mormons feel more judged, more marginalized, more misunderstood and that more of them would take their own lives.
Since early November -- when the edict labeling gay LDS couples as "apostates" and denying their children baptism until age 18 took hold -- social media sites have been buzzing with tales of loss, depression and death. Therapists have seen an uptick in clients who reported suicidal thoughts. Activists have been bombarded with grief-stricken family members seeking comfort and counsel.
Wendy Williams Montgomery, an Arizona-based Mormon mom with a gay son, says she began receiving email or Facebook messages from bereaved families nearly daily, mourning a loved one's suicide.
From the policy's onset through the end of 2015, Montgomery, a leader of the Mama Dragons support group for the families of gay Latter-day Saints, says she had counted 26 suicides of young LGBT Mormons in Utah -- 23 males, one female and two transgender individuals -- between ages 14 and 20. She tallied another six in other states -- though none of the reported deaths could be specifically tied to the policy.
Montgomery's statistics were shared at a recent meeting in Los Angeles of Affirmation, a support group for gay Mormons.
"The number of suicides reported to Wendy Montgomery is shocking," says John Gustav-Wrathall, Affirmation's newly installed president. "I've never seen anything like it in the history of my involvement with the organization."
Trouble is, the number far exceeds the suicide figures collected by the Utah Department of Health. Preliminary figures for November and December show 10 suicides in the Beehive State for people ages 14 to 20, with two more cases "undetermined."

Then the reporter quotes a state health department spokesperson as saying they monitor causes of death and had there been any tie-in with the LDS policy on homosexuals, the department would have noticed it. Suicide records are not broken down by religion or sexual orientation. Still, Montgomery’s figures were very dramatically off.

This article, which had 1,095 comments last I looked, illustrates a major dilemma in journalism.

What happens when a reporter is hearing a lot of talk about certain trends on, say, Facebook, but can’t find the data to support what a lot of people are saying must be true. A subhead says therapists are hearing from more gay patients with suicidal thoughts but only one therapist -- in Provo -- goes on the record to say this is happening in her practice.

Then an ethics professor from Utah Valley University cautions against using purported gay suicides as a way of “weaponizing tragedies in a culture war.” So you do hear from both sides in this report, although the eight paragraphs at the end from an anonymous mother whose gay son committed suicide last month certainly weights the piece in one direction.

I’m mystified as to why we had to wait until well into the story to find out that Montgomery's claims can’t be substantiated. Her evidence is anecdotal: She's heard from families who've called her to say their son or daughter committed suicide because of the new policies that, among other things, disallow children of gay parents from being baptized until they are 18. And if they're baptized, they must disavow their parents' lifestyle. The fact that the her claims can't be independently verified hasn't stopped her from making them.

The lack of proof didn't matter to advocacy publications such as the Advocate, which ran with Montgomery’s claims nevertheless. So did Teen Vogue. They went with a story they believed to be true because, logically, it must be true, right?

The Deseret News, which tends to put the official Latter-day Saints point of view high up, also printed a long piece about the same topic: They dug up the inconvenient fact that Utah suicides actually went down in the last two months of 2015 compared to final months of 2014. But like the Trib story, it thrashes about a bit, because the centerpiece (Montgomery’s claims) cannot be proved.

We've all heard the old journalism bromide: Even if your mother says she loves you, check it out. It's easy for reporters to be skeptical about stories they personally don't agree with. Look at how most media treated the Planned Parenthood videos. The challenge is to apply equal skepticism to stories you think must be true.

The photo of Wendy Williams Montgomery and her family is from the site.

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