What's big news? Major Mormon event showcases varying views on what's a big story


In a 2,000-word news wrap-up about Mormonism’s semi-annual General Conference that concluded Easter Sunday (note unusual scheduling), the lede reported that attendees ”made history” by voting to “sustain” Russell Nelson as the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That was the news judgment of the church-run daily Deseret News. From the standpoint of LDS believers, affirmation of Nelson deserved pride of place because he’s regarded as God’s unique spokesman.

But for non-church media that ritual was yawnsville, worth a sentence or two.

Why? There was no choice of other names and conference attendees always affirm a new president without dissent. Moreover, Nelson’s colleagues had already installed him weeks beforehand. Beyond that, Nelson’s ascent was predestined years beforehand because the new LDS president is automatically the man with the earliest appointment to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

That means newswriters can already put in the bank their advance articles announcing the next president, assuming that Dallin Oaks, 85, outlives Nelson, who is 93.

The Deseret’s secondary theme was the lede for other media: Nelson’s choice of the first LDS apostle with Asian ancestry, America’s Gerrit Gong, and the first apostle from Latin America, Brazil’s Ulisses Soares. It’s intriguing to think Gong, 64, or Soares, 59, could head this heavily Americanized religion someday. (Germany’s Dieter Uchtdorf is also a current apostle. In its early history, the church elevated apostles from England, Denmark and Ireland.)

Some deened appointment of the two apostles as significant as the 1978 policy change that opened all LDS offices to men and boys of African descent, following more than a century of exclusion. Adding to the diversity emphasis, Oaks told the conference that nearly 40 percent of the church’s 116 ranking “General Authorities” were born outside the U.S.

One reader noted, in an email to GetReligion, that the media focused on Gong and Soares while neglecting “equally groundbreaking” news that directly affects 16.1 million members and 30,500 congregations worldwide. That referred to the merger of local “high priest groups” and “elders quorums” into a single body. In addition, the system of home visits to believers was revised.

To The Religion Guy, those steps were worth only brief mention, except for intra-LDS media. Newspapers serving heavy Mormon populations might best do a follow-up feature on how the new system works after it’s implemented locally. Another note on news judgment: The Deseret offered extensive coverage of the conference’s inspirational speeches that other outlets deemed of limited interest for their audiences.

One more observation. The Deseret’s final 48th paragraph briefly mentioned that days before, top leaders had denounced sexual abuse and changed procedures for church interviews with teens, which sometimes discuss sexual behavior.

The Deseret News sidestepped the all-important context -- another newsworthy fact -- that went unmentioned at the General Conference. There have been public protests over sexual misconduct, especially charges against a key LDS official who formerly ran the Missionary Training Center, as covered by the Deseret's rival, The Salt Lake Tribune, demonstrating the importance for the region of this independent daily. Compare the Deseret  with this upsumming from the Associated Press.

For outsiders, interesting perspective on the meeting came in “12 takeaways” for Religion News Service by Jana Riess, whose outlook on matters Mormon is expressed by the title of her column: “Flunking Sainthood.” In addition to the obvious headlines, Riess spotted the following tea leaves.

The choice of those offering platform prayers was more international than usual. In the vote to affirm Nelson, adult women’s collective vote occurred before that by boys who hold the priesthood, instead of following them as before. Women delivered speeches at two of the four mixed-gender sessions. Talks about teen girls emphasized their value as church workers right now rather than duties as future wives and mothers. There was little of the customary rhetoric decrying society’s attacks on the traditional family.

Feature idea: The LDS faith has no clergy and its top leaders, laymen who lack theology degrees, pursue secular careers, often with distinction, before full-time church work.

Nelson was a pioneering heart surgeon and researcher. Oaks was a law professor, university president, and Utah Supreme Court justice. Uchtdorf was chief pilot and head of the training school with Lufthansa airlines. Gong was a senior U.S. State Department official. Soares was an accountant and auditor for multinational corporations.

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