'Magic underwear' is offensive term, but AP uncritically accepts church's PR spin on Mormon undergarments

On the positive side, an Associated Press story this week on Mormon underclothing — sacred attire derided by critics as "magic underwear" — handles the subject matter with discretion and respect.

On the negative side, the widely distributed wire service report uncritically accepts the church's public relations spin.

Let's start at the top:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church is addressing the mystery that has long surrounded undergarments worn by its faithful with a new video explaining the practice in-depth while admonishing ridicule from outsiders about what it considers a symbol of Latter-day Saints' devotion to God.
The four-minute video on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website compares the white, two-piece cotton "temple garments" to holy vestments worn in other religious faiths such as a Catholic nun's habit or a Muslim skullcap.
The footage is part of a recent effort by the Salt Lake City-based religion to explain, expand or clarify on some of the faith's more sensitive beliefs. Articles posted on the church's website in the past two years have addressed the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy; its early history of polygamy; and the misconception that members are taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife.
The latest video dispels the notion that Latter-day Saints believe temple garments have special protective powers, a stereotype perpetuated on the Internet and in popular culture by those who refer to the sacred clothing as "magical Mormon underwear."

The video contains 90 seconds of explanation about the underclothing and does not address the reported markings on the garments. I'm not certain I would characterize that as "explaining the practice in-depth." 

The video describes temple robes "worn only inside Mormon temples and reserved for the highest sacraments of the faith" — robes, incidentally, that don't make the AP or Washington Post stories but do draw mention by Salt Lake Tribune Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack.

From there, the video notes that "there are no outer religious vestments in ordinary worship services":

However, many faithful Latter-day Saints wear a garment under their clothing that has deep religious significance. Similar in design to ordinary modest underclothing, it comes in two pieces and is usually referred to as the “temple garment.”
Some people incorrectly refer to temple garments as magical or “magic underwear.” These words are not only inaccurate but also offensive to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is nothing magical or mystical about temple garments, and church members ask for the same degree of respect and sensitivity that would be afforded to any other faith by people of goodwill. ...
To church members, the modest temple garment, worn under normal clothing, along with the symbolic vestments worn during temple worship, represent the sacred and personal aspect of their relationship with God and their commitment to live good, honorable lives.

But here's a question that goes unasked by AP: Isn't it true that for generations Mormon folklore has perpetuated stories of temple undergarments saving people's lives or otherwise having mystical properties?

On the "misconception" that faithful Mormons get their own planet, GetReligion's own Terry Mattingly recalls hearing that mentioned in a sermon at the funeral for a Mormon prophet in the mid-1980s. As tmatt points out, "That 'misconception' is highly debated — on the Mormon left as well as the right."

AP attempts to put the "temple garments" video into perspective with this statement:

The video and accompanying article feature more detailed information about the garments than has ever before been released to the public, Mormon scholars say.

Here's my pesky question: Do these Mormon scholars have names? AP doesn't bother to quote anybody to back up or elaborate on that broad statement. Yes, I know space is extremely tight in the modern AP, but the quality of journalism suffers from the lack of independent, expert analysis of the church's PR move.

On the other hand, give AP credit for quoting a Mormon blogger who writes for Religion News Service. Her real-person perspective adds authenticity to the story:

The church has some 15 million members worldwide.
Latter-day Saints seem pleased by the refreshing transparency from the church on a topic that has been the source of much curiosity among outsiders, some whom are rude about it, said Jana Riess, who blogs about Mormonism for the Religion News Service.
She wrote this week that she hopes the footage will "persuade gawkers that there's nothing to see here, folks."
"They now have something official to point to if people ask questions," Riess said in an interview. "I love that they put it on YouTube for the entire world to see. I think that's very brave."

Please don't misunderstand my major point: The church's PR move definitely deserves coverage. It's certainly newsworthy.

But by failing to approach the PR spin with a healthy degree of journalistic skepticism, the AP story falls short. And not just in word count.

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