Given the low standards of mainstream reporting on religious issues, it’s hard to publish an article that is truly disappointing, but Slate’s recent piece “Sick and Far From Home” manages to achieve just that. The article, which a Slate press release trumpeted as “a stunning investigatory story,” claims that “[Mormon] missionary culture counsels strongly against seeking medical help” and that “authority figures block access to care.” The article is based on twenty four anonymous sources who served missions over the last four decades. As readily available data reveal, approximately one million missionaries have been called over that time period, so Stern’s sweeping conclusions are based on a sample of about 0.0024 percent of the relevant population.
But the real problem is not the paucity of the data. It is the methodology that Stern apparently used to collect his anecdotes. Two months ago, the following comment was posted by user “MarkJosephStern” to Reddit: “Contribute to a Slate article on health problems during Mormon missions?” Reddit is a massive online community divided into forums called “subreddits.” There are numerous subreddits focusing on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like the Latter-day Saints subreddit, the Mormon subreddit, and the LDS subreddit. Stern did not post his question to any of these forums. The only subreddit where he posted his invitation was the exmormon subreddit.
There is nothing wrong with asking ex-Mormons for their opinions in addition to other Mormon populations, but asking exclusively ex-Mormons for their view of Mormonism is obviously problematic. In addition, there is the problem of identifying sources. In the article, Stern claims that he refers to his subjects by pseudonyms “at their request,” but given the anonymous nature of Reddit we have to wonder: Did Stern really verify the identities of the people he spoke to?
This is not to say that I necessarily doubt the veracity of the stories. Out of a sample size of a million missionaries scattered across hundreds of missions under the direction of lay leaders, it would be stunning if there weren’t at least some true stories of mismanagement and even abuse. Real investigative journalism requires more than just cherry-picking a couple of suggestive anecdotes, however.
Stern also alleges that missionaries must navigate a byzantine labyrinth of bureaucracy before they can access healthcare: they have to all a district leader, then a zone leader, then an assistant to the president, and then finally the Mission President. This is nonsense. The official Missionary Handbook (available online) states clearly that missionaries should call the Mission President directly if they need care or—in the event of an emergency—simply get treatment first and then notify the Mission President afterward.
Not all of Stern’s points are completely spurious. He is correct that there is a serious social stigma within Mormon culture for missionaries who come home early, and that this fear may cause some missionaries to conceal healthcare problems rather than risk being sent home. This is a valid point, but it is telling that Stern makes no mention of the LDS Church’s proactive steps to deal with this problem. This is, once again, information that is readily available online. A Salt Lake Tribune article from 2013 details the health problems missionaries can face—both physical and psychological—and describes “an elaborate system for helping missionaries and their families cope” when missionaries must return early. Richard Ferre, a psychiatrist in the LDS Church’s Missionary Department, is quoted as saying that “there are better ways to cope than to hide illness or to presume [those who come home early] lack faith.”
Cherry-picked anecdotes, easily disproven false statements, and selective omission: is this what passes for “a stunning investigatory story” at Slate? Somehow, I doubt that it would if the subject were anything other than religion. In that case, however, it appears that anything goes.
Nathaniel Givens writes at Difficult Run.
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