Covering Institutions

CASE STUDY: Raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch

Introduction

The following is a timeline of the raiding of the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. This ranch is home to a group of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The Fundamentalist Church split from the Church of the Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons) when Mormon officials renounced polygamy. The Mormon Church, based in Utah, does not recognize any connection to the FLDS.

The timeline also discusses the concurrent newspaper coverage of the event, mostly from the U.S. and Canadian perspectives. Over the course of the events in Texas, the media framed the public’s knowledge of the people on the ranch. While reading this, think about what the media did to raise awareness of the event and the Yearning for Zion Ranch. Did the media’s desire to give the public a narrative override their job to produce unbiased journalism? Consider how the media’s coverage affected the FLDS as a religious institution.

March 31, 2008
The Toronto Star reports that a 16-year-old pregnant girl tips the police that she is getting abused within the YFZ ranch. CNN.com reports that the girl is supposedly married to a 50-year-old man and has a child. The YFZ ranch is one compound of the FLDS run by alleged prophet Warren Jeffs who, The Sunday Morning Herald reports, is currently serving two consecutive 5 years-to-life jail sentences for being an accomplice to rape.*

The local police debate how to react.

April 3, 2008
The police block all roads leading to the YFZ ranch and raid the compound. They begin to bus women and children out of the area. CNN.com is told by the state’s Child Protective Services agency they are “confident that this girl does indeed exist.” The raid makes national and international news. The media follows the story closely.

April 9, 2008
At least 401 sect children are put into state custody without much questioning from the national or international media. A local justice of the peace tells The Los Angeles Times, "We know [FLDS is] violating the law, but someone has to raise their hand and testify, and until that happens we don't have anything.” The FLDS begins to lose legitimacy as a religious institution as the public officials gain opportunities to speak out against YFZ.

April 28, 2008
William M. Welch’s article “Pringle, S.D., keeps watchful eye on polygamist sect” is published by USA Today. It portrays the cynicism in Pringle, South Dakota regarding the Fundamentalists sect within their town. The YFZ allegedly shares similar tendencies of secluding themselves from the rest of the community. These concerns have been highlighted since the raid on Texas. Welch’s piece shows a community waiting for the Pringle FLDS to make a mistake. “I don’t get precise answers [from the sect], and yes, that concerns me,” says Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler within the article. Welch also surveys a variety of the local papers’ headlines, which showcase the concern of Pringle citizens. Some of the titles are “What if it happens here?” and “Will Pringle sect get raided?” The encouragement by the media to associate one community’s actions directly with another caused a more extreme shift in reputation for the FLDS as a religious institution.

May 23, 2008
USA Today reports the Supreme Court’s ruling that the state acted too hastily and that Texas was wrong to raid the YFZ ranch. The judges claim that there is a “lack of evidence that [the children] were in immediate danger of sexual or physical abuse,” according to the NYTimes.com. The court’s support provides the FLDS with good PR in all newspapers however most papers cover Texas’s reaction rather than the YFZ ranch residents.

May 28, 2008
The Globe and Mail newspaper draws comparisons between the Yearning for Zion ranch and a similar group in Canada headed by Winston Blackmore in “ ‘None of us are even married under ... the law' ” by Robert Matas. Matas highlights the investigation Blackmore’s community, Bountiful, is undergoing and refers to possible legal action that might be taken against the community. Blackmore denies any connection to the FLDS community and claims disgust for Jeff’s lifestyle. Blackmore will not admit to being married however he, allegedly, has 26 wives and 116 children. It is clear that the Canadian government is cracking down due to the Texas situation. The Canadian government’s investigation into Bountiful shows the international effect of the United States’s national media on the raid. The repercussions of the FLDS’s shift in image have now extended to a completely separate lifestyle and/ or religion.

June 3, 2008
The Texas judge orders the state to return more than 400 children to the FLDS’s YFZ ranch. For perhaps the first time since the raid, the media criticizes the state for removing the children when they were not in imminent danger. The Guardian reports that the 16-year-old girl has not been found, and her call is brushed aside as a hoax. The children’s return to their parents angers much of the public, showing the media’s ability to affect public opinion from past coverage. Even though the media finally questions Texas’s authority, the FLDS’s image is somewhat set in the public’s eye. This is, in part, due to the information people previously perceived from the media.

After the Fact
Through August there are multiple pieces presented about the FLDS and YFZ ranch. Bryan Appleyard of The Sunday Times wrote on June 22, 2008, “Even if the child abuse is proved, the sect may be saved if it can be shown it was not systematic.” Most articles written carry a similar cynicism towards the FLDS community and sympathy for the state of Texas. The Los Angeles Times reports that one man is accused of bigomy and the rest are charged with “forcing underage girls into marriage and motherhood with much older men.”

Many times narratives are used as a way for journalists to help people comprehend and process information. But what happens when the public’s only access to the subject is through the media, and everyone chooses the same angles? Is it then the media’s responsibility to present all the information, even if it lessens the effect of the reporter’s narrative? If the journalist sees something happening that he or she feels is morally wrong, should he or she interfere or solely present the story? What role should the journalist play in regards to making helpful changes occur?