What’s in a Name?

Public Square Magazine recently published information about how tone of editorial content is correlated with whether editors comply with the 2018 request by the Church to avoid nicknames for the Church. Where editors give themselves permission to continue using the term “Mormon,” articles are much more likely to be negative in tone.

Despite early skepticism about whether news organizations would bother giving up short terms like ”LDS” and ”Mormon” when discussing the Church, there are indications that about half of the stories on major news websites have made the switch to the full name of the Church.

Where the name of the Church is mentioned in the headline, only ~15% of headlines refer to the Church by its full name.

Ironically, the Public Square article, itself, used “Mormon” in the title:

The article includes a link to a detailed description of methodology as well as detailed data used in the study. Of note, the study didn’t look at whether negative tone was appropriate, just what the tone was and how it correlated with used of the nickname.

I myself saw the power of stepping away from the nickname “Mormon” when I went through my book, Reluctant Polygamist, and replaced all instances of the term “Mormon” that could appropriately be replaced. The resulting copy was much improved, though I haven’t yet pushed out this edition of that book.

Having done this for my own writing, I find myself being irritated when other scholars use the term “Mormon” where it is not necessary. Obviously some of these scholarly works were written before President Nelson requested people shift away from use of the term “Mormon” when discussing the Church. Yet having now seen how much less polarizing our new normal can be, it is fascinating to see the burden we used to place upon ourselves (And sometimes persist on placing on ourselves).

Thanks to The Elizabeth McCune Institute for funding this study and to Christopher D. Cunningham for publishing this on Public Square. Thanks also to Jacob Hess for bringing this to the attention of the rest of us who write for M*.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

12 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Meg, sister of stout whisper! Thanks so much for this piece. More inkling of clear thinking so characteristic of you.
    It’s interesting and predictable that an ongoing offender is Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune—a member of record who has, since her early 1980’s Sunstone days, delighted in publishing bits of contempt about her own Church.

  2. I have written my share of headlines over the years, and I would like to point out that it is a difficult art. But yes I would agree that many scholars and journalists apparently don’t care at all about getting the Church’s name right, and that is a shame.

  3. Glen,

    Reflecting on your comment, it occurs to me that those who continue to use the nickname are a bit like the Israelite soldiers who felt it was appropriate to just stick their faces in the water to drink. In that case, God requested that such soldiers be relieved of the requirement to be part of the military force entrusted with Israel’s military objective of that era.

    That said, we each focus on our audience. I am not aware that people who read the Salt Lake Tribune do so because their faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be bolstered by the experience. Given the history of the Tribune, I am more often amazed that coverage of Church matters isn’t even more negative.

  4. What year did Pres Monson send out the First Presidency letter with a similar request to stop using the nickname? Why didn’t that gain traction?

    I think it was at the same time as the nationwide ad campaign, the one with radio ads, billboards, and internet ads. Was that 2012?

    It is appropriate to request that the media use the correct and preferred name. But we do need to be gentle and respectful about it since we were guilty of the same thing for so long.

  5. To Glen, fwiw, neither the Salt Lake Tribune nor the Deseret News are important enough to have made the cut for their editorials to be included in this study.

    To Bookslinger, I think the earlier request was made without the will to really make it so. When President Nelson reiterated the request, he would have been informed by the earlier failed attempt and likely had a better idea of how much we would need to do to achieve the shift.

    So much for those who presume that Salt Lake twitches and we all jump. If that were the case, the earlier request would have achieved the desired effect.

  6. Good idea, Book.
    I wonder too, if what is sometimes needed is more than one mention by the prophets — the Law of Witnesses, by the mouth of two or more. I love the response this time in-Church: name changes of our websites, Tabernacle Choir, etc. And this time, requests were actually sent out to the media outlets by our prophet-leader. I just love it. And yes, to those who still use old monikers, we can be kind instead of grind. Even to the Trib when they are glib.

  7. Meg, off-topic here: Is there a chance that “Reluctant Polygamist: Joseph Smith Jr.” might become available on AppleBooks? Maybe digitize it!

  8. OFF-TOPIC:
    Meg, I just left this review comment of ‘Reluctant Polygamist’ on Amazon:

    I like Ms. Stout’s chutzpah in writing a book that proposes a view not voiced by the bulk of scholar-deities on the subject. Such smug’s might be disposed to pointing out that this offering is not peer-reviewed. So what. Unpopular, mainstream views are rarely bandwagon’d by those intensely protective of their own academic reputations. Meg doesn’t need to worry about that; hence her delightful bravery.
    It would be a bright, beautiful day in the Millennium when the ‘experts’ find out how errant they were. There might be a whole lot of fresh new humility then.

  9. Also off-topic,

    I haven’t reviewed reviews for my book for an extended period of time. I’m guessing some folks got busy ensuring it was known that my work doesn’t have their imprimatur. If I cared about the imprimatur of the current scholars, I might have attempted to become an official historian, rather than a physicist.

    Ive been re-watching Endeavor, the prequel to the Inspector Morse series. Endeavor’s penchant for saying what he believes is true even when his superiors have already found an answer they deem politically correct and sufficient is an ongoing theme. It’s interesting to see how often his colleagues deride Morse for his “theories”. But while we say we honor brave, independent thought, I find that the world is too often characterized by lemmings and lobsters – those who follow without thought and those who prevent others from departing from convention.

    It was fun talking with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. With regards to her book about women in the early Restored Church, she said it was a big change to be writing on a topic where people cared. I imagine some of those who cared may have challenged aspects of Professor Ulrich’s book? Even if not, she wished she’d been able to have the narration done by someone who understood the milieu and therefore knew how to pronounce unusual names, etc.

    I understand Brian Hales did review my book, but apparently no one has been willing to publish his review ((though of course his initial views on my thoughts have been aired here at M*). I talked with Newell G. Bringhurst at MHA 2018, and he indicated he was insufficiently knowledgeable to critique my position. He suggested that Brian Hales and Joseph Johnstun are possibly the only two people he knew of that could critique my position. Joseph Johnstun has gifted me with analysis of select aspects of my book, and I have updated the book based on his feedback. My discussion of the weapons involved at Carthage is significantly informed by Joseph’s fine article on that topic published in the Joseph Whitmer Historical Journal.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve sent copies of my book ((digital or physical) to all the scholars who have the least bit of interest. And I’m on friendly terms with all of them. The first time I visited with Andrew Ehat, he opened by saying “So you are the little woman who has started this great tumult” which is a riff off what Abraham Lincoln said to Harriett Beecher Stowe.

    Of course, just because scholars are friendly with one another doesn’t mean they agree with one another. But hopefully they find each other’s work of sufficient value to prompt further research. And hopefully, they are polite in our collection of glass-formed houses.

  10. Headlines are going to continue to be a challenge, but I was actually encouraged by the number of articles that either complied fully with the style guide or took an effort to use the full name of the Church and explain the Church’s position on the nickname.

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