Newsweek twists message Elizabeth Smart has been sharing with Mormons about sex

The people who manage modern, digital newsrooms are -- to say the least -- under all kinds of pressure to print a never-ending stream of content with headlines and snappy story hooks that try to inspire readers to click, click, click those computer mouses (and maybe even visit an ad website every week or two).

This has led to all kinds of "you won't believe what happens next" editing, both in "news" reports and in graphics.

This has led to an increase in an old kind of news confusion.

In the past, it was perfectly normal for readers to wonder, every now and then, how a strange news headline ended up on top of a perfectly normal story. Your GetReligionistas have often reminded readers that reporters rarely, if ever, write their own headlines. Editors can make mistakes, too.

These days, it's no surprise that there's lots of confusion -- especially in newsrooms where journalists are asked to crank up their daily production count with various kinds of quickie articles. Often, the goal is to take a hot-topic story seen somewhere else, perhaps in a video that can be accessed online, and then combine a bit of that and a little more of this and quotes from other articles (attributed and backed with a URL) into a news product that rarely even requires a telephone call.

Hopefully, with a jazzy headline, this results in clicks.

I think that's what happened with a recent Newsweek article about a young Mormon woman who, after surviving a hellish kidnapping, has been speaking out on the need for religious leaders to be more sensitive when dealing with issues of sexuality, abuse and even trauma.

The headline that caught our reader's eye: "Elizabeth Smart, who changed Mormons' views on sex, is wary of religion."

Uh, #REALLY? That makes it sound like she is trying to convince members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to change many of their basic teachings on marriage, sex and family. That would, indeed, be big news. That headline also hints that her trauma cracked the foundations of her own faith. Here's the overture:

Elizabeth Smart, a Mormon girl who survived a horrific and highly-publicized abduction, is wary of people who use religion to justify their actions.
Smart’s abduction was followed carefully by people across the United States when she was kidnapped from her bedroom by a homeless street preacher at the age of 14. In a conversation with Reddit users on Monday, Smart talked openly about her nine months in captivity in 2002, and about integrating back into society after she was rescued by police.
“There are things that make me wary, one of them being when someone uses religion excessively to justify what they’ve done or are going to do,” Smart said, when a Reddit user asked if she had learned from her abductor how to read signs of danger. 

Now, is fearing that bad people can use religion in bad ways the same thing as being "wary of religion" in general?

In this case, of course, it helps to remember that Smart's abductor, Brian David Mitchell, constantly called himself a "servant of God" -- while raping her as part of what amounted to sexual servitude.

Meanwhile, as the Newsweek article does mention:

The ordeal did not turn Smart away from religion, however. She went to France in 2011 to work as a Mormon missionary, and today she credits her faith with helping her get through the harrowing months of captivity.

That's just a bad headline. For readers, Mormon readers especially, the more serious issue is linked to this passage:

Nevertheless, Smart has very publicly criticized the church’s promotion of virginity and spoken out in defense of rape victims.
"I think the power of faith is amazing, the hope and the healing that it can bring to people," Smart said in an interview last year. "But I also think there's another side of it that can be potentially very harmful, especially when a lot of religions teach that sexual relations are meant for marriage. ... It's so stressed that girls in particular tie their worth to their virginity, or, for lack of a better word, purity."

Now, is saying that young women retain value and worth, no matter what happens to them sexually, the same thing as rejecting her church's teaching that sex outside of marriage is sinful and ultimately unwise?

If you read the article from which that quote was plucked -- over at -- it's clear that Smart is asking church leaders to reconsider some images they use to describe the virtues of sexual purity before marriage, images that are especially destructive for girls and young women who are raped or manipulated into sexual relationships that do them harm.

The best way to see what is going on here is to read a large chunk of the article for yourself:

She often shares, as an example of what not to teach young girls, an analogy that she learned as a young child in Sunday school: "You're like this stick of gum, and if you have sex before you're married, it's like someone chews up that piece of gum, and then when you're done, who wants a piece of gum that's already chewed up? No one." That was the first thing she thought of after Mitchell raped her on the night of her kidnapping.
Unbelievably, ever after Elizabeth was rescued, she was still made to sit through these lessons a few times a year, as a high-schooler in religious seminary classes. "You're like this beautiful fence," she remembers being told in class after she'd returned home. "And you hammer these nails in, and then every time you have sex with someone else, it's like you're hammering in another nail. And you can take them out, you can repent of them, but the holes are still there."
Elizabeth shakes her head. "I just remember thinking, This is terrible. Do they not realize I'm sitting in class? Do they not realize that I'm listening to what they're saying? Those are terrible analogies. No one should use them, period," she says. "Especially for someone who's been raped, they've already felt these feelings of worthlessness, of filth, of just -- " she lets out an exasperated sigh " -- of just being so crushed, and then to hear a teacher come back and say, 'Nobody wants you now'... You just think, I should just die right now."
She says she knows that her teachers never meant any of this with malice, but "statistically speaking, I'm not the only girl that's ever been raped. And those kinds of analogies, they stick with people." At that time, though, she still wasn't speaking up about her own rape -- and wouldn't for several more years, until she testified at the trial of her kidnappers.
"The way we talk about [sex and abstinence] needs to change," she continues. "People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth. When it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never detract from who you are."

Now, is Smart rejecting her church's teachings on sexuality?

She is certainly criticizing images that she has heard to promote those teachings -- especially when these tone-deaf images are used in an era in which many young women are wrestling with sexual harassment, manipulative relationships and even sexual violence.

Also, is there any evidence anywhere that Smart, as stated in the headline, is the young woman who "changed Mormon's views on sex"? That wording is way, way too broad.

So what is the takeaway here? Simply stated: Readers need to look for signs of original research and reporting in the news that they read.

Be careful out there. Quickie stories are often full of punched-up images, under bad headlines, that are not worth your time. Read carefully, because #journalismmatters.

Please respect our Commenting Policy