Journalists and community

The Conversation Is Over!
Why Journalists Can Be Complete Idiots When Reporting on Religious Movements

I have always been intrigued by the way a journalist can shape conversations by virtue of what is included or ignored in a given story. I grew into a news junky at an early age, spending quality time with my dad by combing through the newspaper. As soon as I could put words together I was writing for the little Evangelistic rag my parents were doing.

My family (which happened to be part of a Christian communal group) was in the news a lot and this was not always fun.
I’ll never forget the time we were stabbed in the back by an
undercover journalist. One time a guy from a local paper spent
a week hanging out at our house, playing with me and my
sisters, asking questions, sharing our evening meals. He was so
friendly and I opened my heart to him. When the paper came out
we realized we’d been stabbed in the back. He cozied up to us
and then wrote terribly deceitful and malicious things. I
learned the hard way that it was nothing personal. He needed a
story that bled. So he made us bleed.

When I was eighteen I became the focus of a very different
feature article. When the reporter came around I didn’t know
how to act. I remember talking his leg off, answering Giving
him way too much information. This was the moment I dreaded and
loved at the same time. A puff piece. No slant, just a day in
the life of a nice preacher’s kid. That felt completely
different. I knew the pain of being lied about, but what about
when a story is nothing but praise! It seemed to me that
neither spin gave an accurate picture. It pointed to a weakness
in popular journalism. The public doesn’t want nuance in
feature writing. They want blood or they want a pedestal.

I must admit that growing up I remained blissfully ignorant to
the ways of Cult research and investigations. Cults were bad.
Avoid your local JW or LDS and even Oneness Pentecostal unless
you want to get into a protracted conversation you can’t get
out of. Jim Jones bad. Maybe my first introduction came with a
writing assignment in Bible College when I wrote a paper on
“Why Catholicism is not a Cult.” I decided to do the paper when
I learned that a guy in the previous semester received an “A”
for a paper titled “Why Catholicism is a Cult.” I too received
an ‘A”. The instructor decided to be impartial. Later in that
class I was exposed to a video on meditation where Carol
Matrischiana suggested that India was the world’s best example
of the evil effects of Hinduism. She knew because she’d been
raised there.

That kind of silly thinking was all too rampant around college.
A missions instructor would invite a local Catholic priest in
to ask questions about his faith. The very next class would be
dedicated to debunking (behind his back) everything he said. I
was bemused to learn that the local Baptist college down the
street had our Pentecostal tongue-speaking featured in their
cults class. It seemed like God’s justice. . . neh, just human

This question of how and when the moniker “cult” should be used
is nothing new. In 1997 Time reported on the work of two men,
Ron Enroth and J. Gordon Melton, and their very divergent ways
of dealing with cults. Melton, an Evangelical Methodist,
represents the New Religious Movements (NRM) paradigm and Ron
Enroth, an Evangelical Presbyterian, the counter-cult paradigm.
So what’s the difference? Well, ask anyone who has been
investigated as a cult! Melton is called a cult apologist by
counter-cult groups because instead of seeking to malign and
destroy them he (surprise) wants to hear their side of things.

Somehow he has the nerve to believe that even people he
disagrees with deserve human attention. If you’re interested in
this approach, check out Melton’s own website. He describes his
differences with Enroth and others well and provides an
excellent summary of the Evangelical attention to cults in
recent history. Douglas E. Cowan of the Religious Movements Homepage Project published Bearing False Witness? An Introduction to the Christian Countercult in 2003.
That’s a title I wish I had penned myself.

John Morehead tells his own similar story in “Tired of Treading Water: Rediscovering and reapplying a missiological Paradigm for Counter-cult Ministry.”

Most people cannot relate to being lied about
on some massive scale. The average local congregation is not
accused of brainwashing adherents or being a dangerous cult.
For this reason when a religious group is accused of being a
cult in the press there is usually no rush for a fact check.
Most people probably don’t think to themselves, “I wonder if
that group is really as bad as this says.” The grist has been
run. There is no putting it back in the mill. The group’s only
consolation lies in the well known public amnesia. The news
from Saturday is often long forgotten by the following
Monday—maybe especially where religion is concerned.

I care about religion coverage in the media. It would be too
easy to lick old wounds and retreat with a persecution complex.
No human agent can ever be truly unbiased in the way they spin
a story. But there are certain ethics that reputable news
sources claim to work by. If you want to know more about these
the Project for Excellence in Journalism would be a good place
to start.

Jay Rosen has written a beautiful piece upon the
launch of The Revealer titled: “Journalism is Itself a
” in which he says

“the most urgent purpose of journalism [is] to amplify, clarify and
extend what the rest of us produce as a “society of conversationalists.””

This comment would seem to indicate that to mute, obscure, and
embitter folks into not wanting conversation would be downright
anti-journalistic! Journalism at its best opens our minds and
invites further conversation. I have learned to be wary of any
article that puts the nail in a subject’s coffin and proceeds
to read its’ eulogy.

3 responses to “Journalists and community

  1. Chris,

    This is great – I’m doing a lot of reading on the subject at the moment recently finished Lorne Dawson’s “Comprehending Cults” and Chidester’s (excellent) survey of the Peoples Temple and am currently on Newport’s “The Branch Davidians of Waco” – all make a point of lambasting media coverage.

    I am myself undecided on the use of of cult label, I think there’s probably a place for it but the anti-cult movement and, more importantly, the press has destroyed the idea of this being used as a reasonable sociological term (for one thing it seems to me that the Branch Davidians of Waco were clearly a sect – as per many protestant movements – rather than of a entirely different order.

  2. That’s interesting, Richard. Do you have some writing project in mind with all the study? I’ve continued my Bonhoeffer reading and have had like three ideas for an article, but never seem to take the time to collect it all and put the work into it.

    • Possibly. I comes of the back of reading Janja Lalich’s ‘Bounded Choice’. Lalich co-wrote Cults in our midst with Margaret Singer so you can probably guess her angle. However, this is a more academic treatment (it’s a revision of her Phd thesis) and I’m considering engaging with her argument as I have a couple of weeks off work. Whether anything will come of it I don’t know.

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