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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended August 13, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 22Aug00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Crime Story's Focus Offends LDS Church

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- The LDS Church objected on Friday, August 11th to national news coverage of a gristly San Francisco are murder, suggesting that the coverage shouldn't have mentioned the alleged perpetrator's former membership in the Church. The Associated Press and other news organizations have carried the story about the murder of Saline Bishop, daughter of Blues musician Elvin Bishop, and an elderly couple.

Two brothers are accused of the murders in what appears to be an attempt to extort money from the elderly couple for drugs. Glenn Taylor Helzer, 30, and Justin Helzer, 28, both served LDS missions in the early 1990s, according to information confirmed by the LDS Church, but they both "were excommunicated due to their drug use." A third suspect, Dawn Godman, a roommate of the brothers, has been inactive for more than a year, according to the Church.

The Church's objection to the Associated Press' article, which mentioned the brother's former Church membership in the second paragraph, led the Associated Press to review the story and conclude that its coverage was in error. A follow-up article on Friday relegated the Church connection to the 23rd paragraph.

"The family members [of the suspects] initially identified them as Mormons and we made a mistake in giving it undue prominence," said the Associated Press' corporate spokeswoman Janis Magin. "It was inappropriate to use this reference high in the story. The AP has now dropped reference to their religion to a lower context, when used. The AP tries to be sensitive to religious issues," Magin added. "We don't mention church affiliation except when it is relevant in the context of personal background." The Friday follow-up article was carried in the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, which kept the mention of the suspect's LDS Church affiliation in the article.

Meanwhile, other newspapers have continued to examine the Mormon background of the suspects, including the San Francisco Chronicle, which published an article detailing the brother's change from active missionaries to excommunication for their drug use. LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills told the Salt Lake Tribune that the Church was initially concerned over the local coverage, turning to alarm at the Associated Press story because of its national distribution. The Church insists that the affiliation of the accused is "in no way germane to the current allegations against them. We object to media using this as an identifying characteristic."

Experts in journalistic ethics contacted by the Salt Lake Tribune called the decision to mention the suspects' Mormon background a tough call. "You can understand [the church's] sensitivity, but it's not just that they were former members of the religion, they were missionaries," said J.J. McGrath, acting managing editor of periodical publishing industry magazine Editor & Publisher. "You wouldn't say 'former Catholic or former Lutheran,' but the missionary part is just interesting. You don't get a lot of former missionaries who are suspected mass killers," he added. "It is a close call, but I can see why they did it." Mike Hoyt, senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review agrees, "It always depends on the context. [But] it seems a bit odd. . . . It sort of comes out of left field unless there's a direct relationship."

LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills says that he hopes journalists will learn from the incident. "There is no reason to associate these suspects with the good name of the church or the well-established reputation of our missionaries. We routinely remind journalists that inclusion of an individual's religious affiliation in a story must be relevant. To avoid negative stereotyping, the same relevancy requirement applies to mentioning race, national origin or ethnicity."

However, local coverage of the continuing investigation in the San Francisco Chronicle since the Church raised its objection continues to mention the LDS Church connection, although not as prominently.


Crime Story's Focus Offends LDS Church
Salt Lake Tribune 12Aug00 N1
By Bob Mims: Salt Lake Tribune

Suspects' aunt tells of their family life
San Francisco Examiner 10Aug00 D2
By Marianne Costantinou: Examiner Staff


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