Photo of Joseph Smith: Is It Real? What the headlines got wrong

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Newsweek ran a searing headline: “Photo of Mormon Founder Joseph Smith Jr. Found After Nearly 180 Years.

The only problem was that the first sentence of the story contradicted the title: “A photo of the founder of Mormonism Joseph Smith Jr. was found after approximately 180 years and recently confirmed by one of his family’s descendants, but the church itself is less secure.”

And here’s the catch. There is no consensus yet, no confirmation that this is an authentic image.

Personally, this latest potential photograph of Joseph Smith seems to be the closest of several suitors that have surfaced over the years. The face has features that bear a striking resemblance to some found in portraits made of him during his lifetime. Yet I and many others have noted that the man in the mirror—daguerreotypes are usually mirrored images—appears older than Joseph Smith’s age at his death, 38.

The church statement warned that it has not yet been authenticated. Historians certainly don’t yet agree that this is the long-awaited discovery of a rumored image. You can read the reactions of many of them in Deseret News writer Trent Toone’s clever second article on the daguerreotype, “Is the Joseph Smith Image Real: Next Steps and Historians’ Reaction” .

Yet several other news outlets reported with their headlines that it was indeed this one:

  • “Finally, a photo of Mormon founder Joseph Smith emerges.”
  • “Photo of Mormon founder Joseph Smith discovered by descendant after nearly 180 years.”
  • “Only known photo of Mormon founder Joseph Smith found at Locket.”
  • “Photo of Joseph Smith Discovered by Descendant After Nearly 180 Years.”

Some of these stories have continued, like Newsweek, to introduce the appropriate questions about whether these claims have or even can be verified.

Writing headlines is both harder and more important than ever. Many people get their news from the headlines they see popping up on their phones in alerts or through their social media feeds. With this story, that means many haven’t seen that these stories carry questions about their own titles.

In times like these, capturing interest with a title is more vital than ever. Journalists primarily want readers to click on these headlines and read the details of their stories. And, of course, business models rely on people actually consuming the news to the full, not just the headlines.

It’s really hard to balance precision and capturing interest. None of us succeed every time. But the latest big story about Latter-day Saint history has certainly highlighted the real need to do this as well as possible.

My recent stories

In Rome, President Oaks Continues Latter-day Saint Efforts to Defend Religious Liberty Worldwide (July 20)

About the church

President Russell M. Nelson has returned to the theme of authentic and true identity in recent posts on Instagram and Facebook.

President M. Russell Ballard dedicated a new monument to Black Latter-day Saint pioneers at This Is the Place Heritage Park. D. Todd Christofferson posted about the event on Instagram.

The Orem Utah Temple under construction caught fire. Prompt reports and response from firefighters limited the damage.

Vandals smashed the windows of eight Latter-day Saint churches in a single night in Washington County, Utah.

Dale G. Renlund said it was a special comeback for him to throw the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. (Picture below.)

A few weeks after this newsletter examined the impact of planning boards on places of worship, an interesting request from the Wilton, Connecticut City Architectural Review Board asks the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to redesign the roofline of a proposed chapel.

what i read

I’ve wondered for years what happened to America’s top magazine editor, Gary Smith. His former employer, Sports Illustrated, just profiled him, and you won’t believe what he’s doing. What you can believe is that he was awesome. Here’s an example: “On the prowl: As George O’Leary worked his way up the coaching ladder to his dream job at Notre Dame, a dirty secret lurked on his resume. But did he pay too high a price for a few lies?

With a new study showing that contact sports increase the risk of CTE up to 68 times that of other sports, one author has taken an interesting look at what the end of the header would do to football.

I recently finished John Grisham’s “The Judge’s List” and the first two stories in his “Sparring Partners” collection, the first of which I particularly enjoyed. “The Judge’s List” is a novel about a woman’s pursuit of her father’s killer through internet research, a very interesting premise.

In the wings

Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles throws the first pitch during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family Home Evening at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Md., Monday, July 25 2022.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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