Monday, November 28, 2011

Weighing in on the Podcast Wars: Mormon Expression vs. Mormon Stories

Mormon Expression did a podcast last week in which they responded to criticisms from people who said their tone had become too negative lately. It unleashed a lot of strong comments from listeners (both those who agreed with the criticisms and those who wanted to defend Mormon Expression). A lot of the defenders said some unkind things about John Dehlin (who runs the Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters podcasts), prompting another Mormon Expression listener to call them on the carpet for that.

I'm going to go Swiss on this whole debate. I'm neutral on this matter because I like both of these podcasts. (I'll go ahead and lump Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters in together.) I'm a paying subscriber to both, giving both an equal financial contribution. I like them both for what they're trying to do. And I would defend both of them from criticisms if the opportunity arose.

But how do they each stack up in terms of their credibility? Read on to find out...

Criteria for Evaluating Resources
My main responsibility as an educator at UVU is to teach students how to think critically. One of the key tasks involved in critical thought is learning how to determine whether a particular source is credible and trustworthy or not. Since your argument is only as strong as your evidence/sources, you need to make sure your sources are reliable.

I teach my students that there are seven criteria for determining whether you should use a source to support your argument in a paper:
  1. Authoritativeness - The root word of "authoritativeness" is "author" and it therefore refers to the background of the author and the reputation of the publisher. Is the author an expert (an authority) in their field? Do they have some sort of strong educational or personal background that qualifies them to make an informed statement on this topic? Does the publisher have a good reputation for publishing trustworthy materials?
  2. Quality of Research and Methodology - Are the sources that they use to back their argument reliable and trustworthy (preferably scholarly and peer-reviewed as opposed to being journalistic or web-based)? Did they include formal citations accurately so that others could verify their resources were credible? If they conducted an experiment, were the conditions of the experiment sound, using basic scientific principles to control for all factors?
  3. Objectivity and/or Degree of Advocacy - This refers to whether they are adopting an objective tone or not. There's nothing wrong with arguing a particular position, but are they doing so in a way that is respectful of counterarguments or of alternate viewpoints? If they are arguing a position, how strongly are they arguing for that position? Are they using black-and-white, polemical language or are they showing the complexity of the topic by examining all possible viewpoints on the matter? Are they pushing an agenda or are they willing to let the audience reach their own conclusions on the matter?
  4. Timeliness and Currency - Has the source been published in the last 5 or 10 years? Does it reflect the most current research and perspectives on this topic? This is especially important when researching medical topics, as our academic knowledge about human health becomes updated very rapidly. This is less important when studying historical topics, but it is till a good rule-of-thumb.
  5. Aimed at a Scholarly vs. a Popular Audience - Is it written for other scholars who are experts in the field or is it written for a mainstream audience? Scholarly texts can be more challenging to read and understand, but texts for a popular audience can sometimes water down the information or accidentally distort the information in the process of making it more palatable. Another important consideration is whether they are trying to make a profit off the information or not. Are they publishing it for the purpose of advancing scholarly knowledge on the topic or are they publishing it for a more self-interested purpose?
  6. Primary vs. Secondary Source - Primary sources are documents created by people with first-hand experience with a topic. Secondary sources are created second-hand. The authors were not directly involved in the topic themselves. In academia, a primary document would be a scholarly article reporting on the results of an experiment conducted by the authors. A secondary document would be a journalist who is reporting about that experiment in a magazine. In historical research, a primary document would be a letter, journal entry, interview, or some other record from a person who experienced that historical event first-hand. A secondary document would be a person writing about the event afterwards who did not experience it first-hand. Whenever possible, primary sources are preferable because secondary sources can sometimes lose something in translation.
  7. Usefulness - This is a catch-all category. How useful is the source to what you are particularly trying to accomplish in your research? That can vary from source to source depending on what you're trying to do.
Now, just because a particular resource is weak in one of those areas doesn't necessarily mean that you should throw it out. Think of these seven criteria as being seven channels of input that you can use to determine the resource's overall credibility, kind of like the buttons on an audio equalizer:

If a particular resource is high on all 7 channels, it's definitely a good resource. If it's mostly high, it's probably still reliable, but you should take it with a grain of salt. If it's low on most of these channels, you should probably avoid it.

With that in mind, let's pit John vs. John and evaluate how both Mormon Expression and Mormon Stories/Matters stands up to this criteria.

Mormon Expression

Authoritativeness: I give them an A or an A- on this category. Mormon Expression features a lot of interviews with scholars and others who are authorities in their field. Either that or the interviewees have studied the topic personally in a great deal of depth. When the podcast is a panel discussion, all of the panelists are expected to have heavily researched their topics beforehand or to have some extensive first-hand experience in the matter. Some panelists are occasionally weaker than others (depending on the topic), but all in all, they are generally well-informed.

Quality of Research and Methodology: I give them an A- or B+ on this category. I probably would have given them a higher score on this, but one complaint I have about Mormon Expression is that they don't always indicate where their information comes from. I prefer going to primary sources when I can so that I can study the topic further or determine whether I agree with the panelists' interpretation of the evidence. But they do sometimes cite their sources informally and, when they do, the sources seem relatively credible and scholarly.

Objectivity and/or Degree of Advocacy: This one is difficult to quantify, but I think I'd give them a B+ on this one. It's difficult to evaluate this because I think they make a genuine effort to have balance in the panelists that they invite to discuss topics on the show. I like the new believing voices they've been having on the show (like Brandt and Jessie) because they do a good job of arguing for their position while still being respectful of divergent viewpoints. However, John Larsen is usually the moderator on Mormon Expression and, as such, he exerts some control over the conversation. This sometimes makes the conversation weigh in favor of the ex-Mormon position a little bit. Plus, John has been ramping up his use of polemical language a bit more lately. I generally agree with his arguments, but the use of polemics is occasionally troubling because it reminds me too much of the black-and-white thinking that I distrust (whether it's coming from the church, from FoxNews or from the Internet). Any time I hear an extreme position being taken, it sets off my internal warning bells. It doesn't mean I throw it out, but it means that I proceed with caution. I've learned that every issue worth talking about is more complex than absolutist logic allows for. Mormonism is no exception.

Timeliness and Currency: Sure, I'll give it an A. It's not really an applicable category here, but they do talk frequently about current events. And when they're talking about historical topics, timeliness is not as important.

Aimed at a Scholarly vs. Popular Audience: I'll give it an A- or B+ here. It's definitely aimed at a popular audience and it's trying to be good entertainment. Therefore, the information or the evidence can sometimes be diluted in translation. However, I don't think they have any kind of desire to profit from Mormon Expression. Donations to the podcast go to running the podcast itself and nothing else. They're doing the podcast because they find the topic interesting and they want to think/talk about Mormon issues. In essence, they really do want to advance a scholarly discussion about Mormonism---but in an accessible form.

Primary vs. Secondary Source: I'll give it a A- or a B+ here as well. It's obviously a secondary source itself, but they try to research using primary documentation whenever possible. Again, I might give them a more solid A- if they cited their research better.

Usefulness: This is going to fluctuate from listener to listener, but for me personally, I'll give it an A-. I have found that it definitely expanded my understanding of my religion. I prefer academic, scholarly examinations of Mormonism that are grounded in good research and good arguments. Mormon Expression satisfies this need for me. What I especially like about Mormon Expression is how democratic it is. If you want to voice an opinion, you can do it on Mormon Expression. They'll let anyone who has something useful to say onto the podcast. No censorship. Just democratic exchange. That's Mormon Expression's greatest strength. It can sometimes backfire on them, but it's ultimately what makes their podcast so great. It's like one giant peer review.

Overall Grade: It's in the A- or B+ range, depending on the episode.

Mormon Stories/Mormon Matters

Authoritativeness: I'll give them an A in this category. They tend to have experts on the podcast to talk about their area or expertise or they feature people who have had first-hand experience with the topic. This is a strength of the podcast.

Quality of Research and Methodology: I'll give them an A- in this category. They usually informally cite their sources and their sources tend to be scholarly and trustworthy. Sometimes they link to their sources in the podcast notes, which is helpful. It's clear they put a lot of pre-discussion and research into their podcasts.

Objectivity and/or Degree of Advocacy: I'll give them a B+ in this category. They try very deliberately to be accepting of lots of points of view and they often succeed, but it does sometimes feel like they push the "Stay LDS" agenda a little rigorously. They've also been known to delete comments and things that are not in keeping with their mission or tone. That's good for PR, but the tradeoff is that it can shut down the democratic exchange of ideas by not allowing all viewpoints onto the table. Although there is an element of censorship to it, I will grant them a pass if they are removing comments from people who are making unfair character attacks or being unnecessarily abrasive. Plus, I recognize that podcasts do have some responsibility to ensure that people who agree to appear on your podcast will not be treated rudely by listeners. Otherwise you risk of getting a bad reputation and alienating potentially good guests from coming on the podcast in the future. Good guests are the lifeblood of a podcast and a bad reputation can kill you off. (I've seen this happen with movie podcasts I listen to.)

Timeliness and Currency: I'll give them an A on this one for the same reasons I gave Mormon Expression an A too. This category doesn't apply so much when they discuss historical topics and they do a good job of discussing topics that are current events in Mormonism.

Aimed at a Scholarly vs. Popular Audience: I'll give them the same score as Mormon Expression on this one: a B+. And pretty much for all of the same reasons (see above).

Primary vs. Secondary Source: I'll give them an B+ here. Like Mormon Expression, they are a secondary source. They do draw on primary sources for inspiration, but less so than Mormon Expression does. (Like I'm thinking of how the Mormon Expression folks will actually read primary documents such as scriptures, hymns, or discourses in their discussions.)

Usefulness: Again, this will also fluctuate from individual to individual. For me personally, I'll give it a B+ at this point in time. Since my faith in Mormonism is at 1-2% (meaning, it's not very strong), Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters are not as relevant to me in my spiritual journey as they were in the past. However, they were very, very important to me at one point. They provide a safe place where people can transition to wherever it is they need to go on their faith journey. Even though they're somewhat more boring (sorry!) compared to Mormon Expression, I still think they have valid arguments and interesting perspectives on Mormon issues. And I do appreciate their attempts at balanced discussion.

Overall Grade: A general A-, possibly a B+.

For me, both podcasts come out equal in the end. They both have good content. They just have different scopes, purposes, and audiences. In some ways, it really does come down to the usefulness category and what you look for in a podcast. I think I personally prefer Mormon Expression because I prefer democratic exchange, because the topics on Mormon Expression are a little more interesting and also because of where I'm at in my life right now. But how lovely that I don't have to choose. I can listen to and enjoy them both for what they're worth. Mormon Stories/Matters appeals to my heart and Mormon Expression appeals to my head. That seems like a good balance.

Feel free to chime in and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment. As I said, I'm a big fan of democratic dialogue, so your two cents matter to me. :)


    1. Hello! I listen to both of these podcasts quite often, but lately have spent more time with Mormon Expression because I'm a little tired of the LGBT topics. I think you are way too kind in the "Objectivity and/or Degree of Advocacy" category for Mormon Expression. John Larson doesn't even pretend to be objective, though he is perfectly willing to have TBMs on the podcast. I think Brandt is a good addition as well, but overall the podcasts lean much more toward the critical side in my opinion. I'd like to see them get a couple more very knowledgeable (and argumentative) TBMs on the podcast to help balance it out better but I know it's a challenge finding TBMs who are willing to join. So, bottom line I'd give them a C grade at best. Thanks for blog posts, I'm enjoying them!

    2. You're probably right about me being too kind on the objectivity category for Mormon Expression. My husband said the same thing about how he would have rated them lower on that category. He also said he would have rated them lower on authoritativeness too. Perhaps it's my own bias coming through. :)

      After listening to the Voices episode with Tom, I wonder if Tom's departure might be linked to the downturn in objectivity. I kind of miss Tom and the influence he had on the podcast.

    3. I started listening heavily after Tom disappeared for the most part so I haven't heard him very much. I enjoyed the voices podcast, however, and felt like his story is similar to mine. I feel a sense of loss for sure.