Mass media outlets around the world are overwhelmingly negative towards small spiritual groups. This article explores the origin of this bias and the harm caused by positioning all new religious movements as criminal groups or dangerous “cults” which should be feared and despised.
For over 30 years positive media coverage for small spiritual groups has been virtually non-existent. But why?
In a world where most journalists would tell you that media reporting is objective and unbiased, we are bombarded with “atrocity stories” about spiritual minorities, who are routinely discussed in pejorative and emotionally loaded labels such as “sect” and “cult”.
This phenomena has been the subject of much study by social scientists in the realm of new religious studies, and some revealing discoveries have been made.
Negative Framing of New Religious Movements (NRMs)
To understand the influence the mass media has on creating stereotypes of alternative spirituality, it’s important to first realise that new religious movements (the more objective term preferred by religious scholars when referring to spiritual minorities) are significantly overrepresented in the media compared to the actual percentage of people who attend them.
There is no denying that in the past there have been some groups with patterns of criminal behaviour. However the vast majority of NRMs are benevolent.
NRMs are only interesting to the press when they involve conflict, and as such only approximately 1% of NRMs are represented in the media.Source A small percentage of criminal religious minorities has come to represent all NRMs in the eyes of the public, due to the negative way the mass media labels all alternative spiritual minorities as “cults” and frames and presents them in the same way.
Most scholars of new religion who have studied the media agree that media treatment of NRMs is typically negative:
In covering such groups, “it appears that the assumption of misdeed is the norm among news reporters,” writes sociologist Stuart Wright. […] More colorfully, Nancy E. Bernhard of Harvard Divinity School put it this way in 1993: “With or without the reporter’s intent, such coverage reinforces mainstream norms about religious and social behavior and creates the impression that all nontraditional or exotic belief is lecherous, moronic or illegal.” Source
The original meaning of the word “cult” which comes from the French culte is “to worship”. But as dangerous minorities have increasingly had the “cult” label applied to them, the word has lost its more benign meaning to be replaced with negative associations that “conjure images of brainwashing, coercion, deception, exploitation, perversion, and religious fraud. For many Americans these […] socially constructed opinions, assumptions, and inclinations [are] so taken for granted that they seem natural”. Source
To understand the extent to which these ideas are embedded into our psyches we can look at a study by Nexus who analysed the contents of over 250 publications between 1975 and 1997 to discover that there were 191,425 media stories using the word “cult”, compared to 74,066 stories using the word “sect” (which has a pejorative meaning similar to “cult” in Britain and France). There were only 4,196 articles that used the term “new religion”.
We are hard-wired to respond more to negativity than positivity. In fact researchers have discovered that it takes approximately five positive impressions to overcome one negative one.
As one social scientist commented:
Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. Source
With the overwhelming number of depictions of small spiritual groups framed in such a negative light, it is not surprising that the majority of people within society now have deeply-rooted suspicions towards alternative spirituality. It only takes a few instances of seeing criminal activities associated with NRMs before all NRMs are seen as criminal.
If you are constantly met with distrust and resistance when you talk to others about alternative spirituality, hopefully now you are starting to understand why.
Such bias in the media can have massive and long-lasting repercussions for spiritual minorities. For example, national officers for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) have stated that it took almost a decade to undo the negative publicity received over the actions of one corrupt swami.
Scandals and Conflicts Make Attractive News Items
It is common when reporting on NRMs to highlight conflict – whether actual or imagined – in order to create a sensational story.
The 99% of small spiritual groups which integrate well with society, and have happy and fulfilled adherents, are just not “newsworthy” enough for the mainstream media who rely on ratings and subscriptions to survive. As such, harmless and beneficial groups are rarely reported on. And if they are, they may be illegitimately associated with dangerous groups, tarred with the same “cult” brush and suspected of wrongdoing, just because they are a new religious movement.
While conflict is often used to structure stories, actual conflict is not required to fabricate stories about the “cult menace”. Scholars suggest that simply labelling a group as a possible “cult” is reason itself to write a story; stories can be created just by speculating about a group’s potential deviance. Otherwise boring and mundane stories can be sensationalised by adding layers of conflict based on mere speculation or hearsay.
During the drawn-out and often unstimulating 51 day siege at WACO for example, European journalists began writing about whether authorities in their own countries should be taking pre-emptive action to avert a similar situation occurring. Others used the opportunity to investigate the issues of gun ownership and control in the USA. The already negative image of the Branch Davidians promoted by the local media was compounded by linking them with a separate conflict related to firearms.
The audience very rarely has the opportunity to receive information about NRMs which is unrelated to conflict. The movements are only in the news when conflict is involved; and conflict concerning one movement is pounced on as an excuse for investigation of all the other movements in the catch-all category of ‘cults’. The aftermath of Waco was full of stories along the lines of the Boston Globe’s ‘If you think Waco, Texas was bad, consider who could be next’. Source
Often stories revolve around physical rather than spiritual deviances – for example the breakdown of family units, supposed fraud, financial or sexual concerns – and avoid matters of doctrine. Physical “deviances” are more easily reported on by journalists who may have no religious background or training, and can be understood by the public who mostly have no direct experience with NRMs either, but can relate to the narrative being constructed as they have seen it repeated in other spheres of reporting, such as in politics or commerce.
The exception to this is the charge of “brainwashing”, which is unique to media stories about NRMs. Historically brainwashing allegations have been used as a guise for intolerance – an accusatory denunciation that invokes fear and horror toward spiritual minorities without requiring any evidence or substantiation, yet nevertheless seems scientific. But the very concept of brainwashing has been thoroughly dismissed by the legal establishment for having no scientific backing whatsoever. Source
Despite being debunked, proponents of the anti-cult movement are often quoted in the media regarding the supposed brainwashing of “cult members”. Conveniently this adds legitimacy to paid “deprogramming” or “exit counselling” efforts by moral entrepreneurs within the anti-cult movement; the logic being that if someone has been “brainwashed” to join a group, they can be brainwashed to turn against it.
It’s also interesting to note, that the media chooses to portray some types of conflict but not others, and tend towards the sensational and fear-inducing. For example, in 1997 the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate temple was widely reported in the media. In the same year there was an average of 30,000 unrelated suicides in the US and approximately 400,000 people who died from smoking cigarettes. Source Yet it’s unsurprising that such frequently occurring tragic events were not reported in the same alarmist manner as the Heaven’s Gate “mass suicides” whose motives and sanity could be speculated upon.
Sources of information
To further understand the bias towards NRMs, we need to look at where journalists are sourcing their information from.
In a 1980 study of 240 journalists across 7 US newspapers, 86% of journalists responded that “they seldom or never attend religious services, [which suggests] that journalists are overwhelmingly less inclined towards religious belief than the rest of the population”.Source
There is also strong evidence suggesting that newspapers do not recognise the legitimacy of new religious movements:
It has been shown empirically that news and political editors have strong feelings about deviant groups in society, and that these feelings are related to the perceived legality, viability, and stability of these groups. Source
Since most journalists have no religious background, and have probably never had any direct experience with NRMs, they are more likely to speculate about a NRMs unknown nature. Even journalists who specialise in religion – and who may not be prejudiced by a differing religious view – are under so much pressure to produce timely articles that they are unlikely to thoroughly research groups to gain an in-depth unbiased perspective. Journalists tend to seek out the most willing subjects who offer information suited to conflict-based stories that fit familiar negative media narratives and stereotypes about NRMs, which are easy to reproduce. These sources unfortunately tend to be:
- disgruntled apostates of the NRM in question;
- members of the anti-cult movement;
- government or religious bodies who may have an agenda towards NRMs; or
- previous editorial sources of information.
The point of view expressed by these sources is usually supported by the journalist without much scrutiny. Indeed the media can help to promote the positions put forward by those with an anti-cult agenda by presenting them as trustworthy authority figures or “experts”. This leads to a very slanted approach to the story.
So even if the journalist gives someone from the NRM the opportunity to give their perspective, the entire story is still usually framed with the typical negative “cult” narrative. The views of anti cult “experts” and disgruntled former members are almost always given more credibility than the views of any current members, who are often presented as “brainwashed”. Not only do small spiritual groups lack media support, but their members often lack the media training and skills that “cult experts” or the larger religious or government bodies hostile to them tend to have. This can make them an easy target to be ambushed, intimidated or manipulated in an interview by seasoned journalists, or they may simply look inept in comparison to those hostile to them. Even if a group’s member does answer an interview well, the edited story can still be framed so that the group is presumed guilty and the sources hostile to the group are favoured.
The NRM thus becomes guilty until proven innocent, and is often treated with suspicion and contempt in a “trial by media” scenario. This puts the group’s members in a lose-lose situation, where they risk looking evasive if they avoid speaking to the journalist, but face being set up for a show trial or ridicule if they do.
Apostates and the anti-cult movement
Apostates and members of the anti-cult movement (which ironically display many of the characteristics they accuse NRMs of possessing) are heavily relied on to provide experiences and so-called “expert opinion” for news pieces.
Disgruntled apostates are known to represent only a tiny portion of people who come and go from NRMs, most of which do so without harbouring any ill feelings towards their previous religious involvement. For whatever reason disgruntled apostates choose to distance themselves from their previous NRM affiliation, often claiming to have been “brainwashed” in order to excuse or explain their previous involvement with a spiritual group, the choices they made while part of it, and to justify their decision to leave it after being so committed. They may sell their “atrocity stories” to the media, and have been known to have received coaching from members of the anti-cult movement in what to say.
The anti-cult movement willingly provides sensationalised stories to the media, exaggerating the more obscure or strange aspects of NRMs while ignoring any characteristics which humanise them. Many people in the anti-cult movement have made a good living by providing “expert opinions” as well as taking part in “deprogramming” or “exit counselling” activities which thrive on sensationalism about NRMs. Often the same self-professed “cult experts” – some of which have dubious backgrounds and most of which are without any official credentials – will be used repeatedly to support the sensational but often unfounded accusations put forth by the media.
The anti-cult movement is happy to supply atrocity stories to the media, whose publications then serve to reinforce the legitimacy of the anti-cult movement’s claims.
Church lobby groups (the countercult movement) and religious interests
Religious lobby groups and interests may also assert influence on media perspectives. The Christian Countercult Movement is “composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christian individuals, agencies, and para-church groups who attempt to raise public concern about religious groups which they feel hold dangerous, non-traditional beliefs. Those in the CCM are sometimes called heresy hunters or heresiologists.” Source
They are often concerned with the spiritual welfare of those they believe are following a non-traditional faith, and in some cases their efforts may be seen as “spiritual warfare” – any groups that deviate from traditional Christian beliefs are literally seen as the work of the devil.
Religious organisations may provide an “aura of authority” to media stories and may be particularly influential in countries where traditional major religions are maintained as the status quo.
However, even in countries without overarching religious bodies, religious interests may bias news reporting. For example, a Christian theologian and self-proclaimed “cult expert” in Australia – who has been known to ambush NRMs in order to create sensational news stories – has also held the position as the head of religious broadcasting at a major media station.
In some cases journalists may source their information from government bodies or figures to report on small spiritual groups. In the case of Falun Gong, researchers have discovered that much of the rhetoric in negatively-biased articles about the group originates in wording used by the Chinese government.
This has serious repercussions for practitioners of alternative spirituality in the east, as positive reports of the government’s actions towards Falun Gong serve to bolster the government’s cause, whereas negative publicity of the government’s human rights abuses has been shown to reduce the torture and conditions of imprisonment suffered by Falun Gong practitioners.
As another example, Senator Xenophon in Australia who has an Orthodox Christian background is an outspoken critic of “cults” and is often quoted in newspapers in stories about alternative spiritual groups. He is a proponent of laws against “mental manipulation” (a.k.a. “brainwashing”) similar to the anti-sect laws in France, a country known for relying on the anti-cult movement for media reporting and establishment of policies.
The “Herd Effect”
It is well known by publicists that if an article is covered in a major newspaper such as the New York Times, it will spawn a series of almost identical articles in smaller newspapers throughout the world. This is known as the “herd effect”.
Journalists at the top of their field, who may or may not have any religious training, can have their work archived and repeatedly referred to in future coverage of NRMs. It is unlikely that there is any retrospective fact checking in this process, and it’s well known that NRMs who are presumed guilty but later absolved of any wrongdoing practically never have their image redeemed in the media. Thus an initial negative depiction of an NRM becomes a persistent stain on their record and a brush used to tar other NRMs, as harmful depictions of groups are often used to frame stories about new “cult” conflicts.
Religious scholars, social scientists and the NRMs themselves
Journalists typically do not look to representatives of new religious movements – who are often denied the chance to respond to accusations about them – when sourcing information for stories.
Unfortunately religious scholars and social scientists who could add a much more objective perspective to the debate are also overlooked. The reason for this may have been elucidated in a study analysing the perspective of journalists towards religious reporting. When asked if journalists read the work of social scientists on NRMs, one journalist responded:
No, why would I? While I consider myself an intellectual, open-minded & a progressive conservative I don’t need to read their stuff to know what it contains – why associate with trash Source
What’s motivating journalists?
A great deal of effort has been expended within the social-scientific tradition to unravel the complexities of marginal religious organizations. Unfortunately it seems that the message is somehow totally lost to the majority of those employed by the major print media Source
There may be many reasons why journalists would portray such a negative view of new religious movements, not least of which is upholding the status quo.
Editorial bias cannot be discounted. Even if a journalist is sympathetic to NRMs, if an editor knows someone who has had a bad experience with a minority religious group it is unlikely that well-balanced reporting on NRMs will ever pass beyond their desk.
Media owners themselves have been known to display extreme bias in a very public manner towards spiritual minorities.
Television shows require ratings in order to effectively sell advertising space and it’s commonly understood that media sensationalism attracts consumers.
However, commercial interests which may affect how small spiritual groups are reported can have many layers of complexity. In China for instance, magazines and newspapers have been discontinued for reporting on the Chinese government’s abusive treatment of Falun Gong practitioners. Would journalists or publications in the West censor their views in order to retain their place in overseas markets?
There are also many personal benefits for journalists covering sensational “cult” stories. They might find their story on the front page of their newspaper or magazine, eventually garnering a book deal, or have the privilege of breaking the latest “cult” scare, a matter of professional pride that could accelerate the progression of their career. How many journalists would prefer anonymity from writing realistic but boring stories?
A Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Media Bias
Unfortunately for spiritual minorities, the media has created a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity that is very difficult to break free of.
A study in 1987 showed that 141 (64 percent) of 218 suggested readings by an anti-cult organisation were negative news reports. Source
A current anti-cult informational page claims they have collected 13,000 articles regarding over 2000 groups, a claim which in itself appears to be grossly exaggerated.
Some scholars feel that by perpetuating the view that all NRMs are dangerous, the small minority of groups harbouring hostile tendencies are more likely to feel isolated and provoked to fulfil the predictions of the media. Groups that commit criminal acts are then used to reinforce the notion that all NRMs are to be feared and despised.
Often parents who were previously unconcerned by their children’s involvement in spiritual minorities have been converted to anti-cult supporters as a result of mass media induced hysteria.
Researchers have also discovered that the majority of journalists if contacted by a concerned parent would direct them to an anti-cult body for further information, perpetuating the cycle of fear and negativity towards NRMs. Even those directly affected by NRMs have a tendency to rely on the mass media for their information. Source
This self perpetuating cycle has naturalised a mental association of NRMs with the concepts of brainwashing, fraudulence and violence; or in other words the depiction of NRMs in a negative light has become an unquestioned truth in the minds of the public. Source
The Human Costs of Media Bias
What many may not consider when reading a sensational story about the latest “cult menace” is the very real effects this negativity has on the lives of many people.
Journalists function as the principal gatekeepers of public opinion especially on matters with which the person-in-interest is not normally familiar. Their overwhelmingly critical portrayal of the movements can therefore contribute indirectly towards the latter’s control. Source
Despite the vast majority of people never having any direct experience with new religious movements, surveys have shown that public negativity towards NRMs is widespread. In 1987 the American public responded to a survey stating that “cults” were the least favoured type of neighbour to have. Source
The “cult menace” narrative affects policy makers in government who often look to the media to gain information about pressing issues in society. Because they need to be seen to be addressing the greatest fears of their citizens, they may be disinclined to express a neutral stance or object to the demonization of spiritual minorities in society. Lawmakers and agencies of control are more likely to take a strong-armed approach towards small spiritual groups, as they know the public will support them, having been conditioned to fear small spiritual groups.
In Latvia the press has been instrumental in calling for the creation of an anti-cult movement. In France, where the media and government rely on the anti-cult movement for much of their information about NRMs, the leaders of religious minorities have been publicly humiliated and demonized through media publication of unfounded allegations which are later proven untrue.
In the case of the WACO tragedy, the media are directly implicated in the deaths of the 76 Branch Davidians and 4 ATF agents who died as a result of the siege which began just one day after the local Herald-Tribune ran a story titled, “That’s law and order?” which reprimanded the government for not taking action on the rumoured child abuse at the Branch Davidian compound.
Families can be conditioned to fear the involvement of fellow family members in NRMs, which can lead to relationship breakdowns, a charge that ironically is often directed towards NRMs themselves.
But the greatest overall cost of the media’s assault on alternative spirituality is in the reduced capacity of the public to access possibilities for internal development beyond the bounds set by an atheistic society and established religions.
Some researchers feel that the media portrayal of “cults” reached its peak in the 1970s and has been in decline since then. I would like to propose that if this is true then it is because NRMs have already been degraded and lost legitimacy in the minds of the public to such a degree that fewer alternative groups now exist, and people now self-censor their spiritual yearnings out of fear they will come to harm by exploring spiritual truths.
Further depictions of “cults” in the media (which still occur almost on a daily basis throughout the world) will continue to reinforce this discrimination and to make it increasingly harder for groups to function and people to participate in them without prejudice, and that is a massive loss for the spiritual wealth and freedom of humanity.
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