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Balancing Act for Salt Lake Station

Sep 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

NBC affiliate KSL-TV, the No. 1 station in Salt Lake City, headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is in an unusual position when it comes to religion journalism. The station is owned by Bonneville International, which is owned by the church.

Bonneville, managed by Deseret Management and owned by the Mormon Church, was founded in 1964 in Salt Lake City. In addition to its one TV station, the company owns about 30 radio stations across the country.

General Manager Con Psarras noted the challenge that church ownership can create in the newsroom. “When you’re in a place like Salt Lake City, where there is a large presence of one religion, it has the potential to overwhelm coverage of other religious groups,” he said. “So we make a point of devoting time to other religions and denominations.”

At the same time, Mr. Psarras said, the Mormon Church “has a deep and abiding commitment to the community, which they believe is serviced by honest, accurate and fair journalism.”

KSL’s full-time senior reporter/anchor Carole Mikita, who has covered religion since 1998, does two religion stories a week on average, including stories on Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Muslims and Jews. “Because it is world headquarters [of the Mormon Church], it’s an active faith community for other churches as well,” said Ms. Mikita, a Mormon who believes that being a person of faith gives her an advantage in asking the right questions of people of other faiths.

“I don’t talk about my faith,” she said. “And it’s a compliment when [people who view her reports] don’t know. That means I’m doing OK.”

But it gets trickier. The Mormon Church holds a general conference twice a year, and because the station is church-owned, KSL broadcasts the four two-hour sessions during the weekend. Ms. Mikita also produces an hour of programming related to Mormon Church news and events, often focusing on its charitable work throughout the world.

“It’s a balancing act,” Mr. Psarras admitted. “We pay close attention to not crossing the line from our journalistic coverage. Sometimes that’s an area where we have to question ourselves and make sure we’re comfortable with it. But Carole does a great job of making sure that wall is not breached.”

Though Ms. Mikita said her stories are “by no stretch of the imagination investigative journalism,” she stressed that she doesn’t avoid negatives, pointing to a piece on the 200th anniversary of the birth of church founder Joseph Smith. “We didn’t shy away from talking about the fact that not everything in his life was positive,” she said. “It wasn’t an expose, but it wasn’t all sweetness and light either.”

“We’re so obviously tied to the church, but they tell us not to let the ownership taint what we do journalistically,” Mr. Psarras said. “We would be remiss in our duties to the community at large if we demonstrated bias, intentional or unintentional.”