When we turn on the news, open a paper or watch our favourite current affairs show, we might expect to be informed, not manipulated. What many may not consider or realise, however, is just how biased and sensationalist these forms of media can be, and how much they can influence our world view.
This is true in the media’s coverage of many aspects of society. Public figures are defamed on a regular basis, with the media knowing on probability that they will not be sued for every falsity or unsubstantiated allegation they publish. When people or groups are exonerated, the media is unlikely or reluctant to print a retraction, or to give it the same level coverage, as positive news is just not “newsworthy” enough to entertain its consumers. Sensationalism and negative coverage breeds curiosity, engages and unites consumers around social norms and orthodoxy and attracts advertisers.
In such a media environment, alternative spirituality is an easy target. It has been targeted and tarnished in the public mind through years of exposure to anti-cult rhetoric in the media following high profile tragedies at WACO and Jonestown. Alternative spirituality is almost always framed in a negative light, with the very idea of it deliberately conflated with controversy and associated with the very small minority of unconnected groups which have committed criminal acts. While the majority of the public have no experience with small spiritual groups, their curiosity is easily evoked by the lurid stories of “brainwashing”, “mind control”, broken families and alleged sexual transgression which the media often lead with when covering so-called “deviant” spiritual minorities.
What the viewing public is likely unaware of is just how complicit the media is, in league with the anti-cult movement, in creating these stereotypes in the first place. Once created they have been perpetuated by continuously highlighting the strange or criminal behaviour of a tiny percentage of new religious movements while ignoring those who integrate well with society.
How the Media uses Propaganda and Framing Techniques to Paint a Negative Picture of Alternative Spirituality
The angle or perspective that a journalist takes when covering a story is powerful. It shapes the viewers interpretation or understanding of news events and future choices they may make regarding the subject matter. This angle or perspective is known as “framing” and its study is known as “framing theory”.
An example of framing discussed by linguistics expert Dawn Archer is the possibility of a newspaper leading an article with the headline: “Drinking tea doubles risk of cancer”. This might put you off drinking tea – unless you dig deeper and realise the information this is based on only shows that the risk of developing cancer from drinking tea is 1 in 10,000 or 1 in 100,000.
Framing devices often rely on negative emotions and seek to intensify a readers emotional disposition towards a particular aspect of society. When reporting on alternative spiritual groups, journalists primarily use the emotionally-laden and pejorative word “cult” or “sect” (“sect” has the same connotations as “cult” in some European countries) to stimulate negative sentiment towards a group. As stated by Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
“Once labeled as a cult, there is not much need to explain all of the baggage that comes with it – the implicit ideas of extremism, mind control, authoritarianism and secrecy that play perfectly into the kind of rigid stereotypes beloved of the ignorant and bigoted.”
The use of framing devices serves a number of purposes. Framing simplifies a story into a black and white dualism. In regards to spirituality religious scholar Bernard Doherty explains that we are often presented with a “strong dualism between good (victims) and evil (cultists)”. This makes the concept of the article easier to understand for a public who may have no direct experience of alternative spirituality and predisposes the audience to align themselves with the victims and view new religious movements (NRMs) negatively.
Framing also helps with narrative structure. As a result of more than 30 years of repetition of “evil cult” stories in the media the public are familiar with the general accusations towards NRMs of alleged brainwashing, mind control, family breaking, and financial, physical or sexual exploitation. Analysing a series of NRM “cult” accusations in various print and visual media shows that the majority of stories all follow this trajectory despite often lacking evidence to support the allegations.
Framing a group as a “cult” places a story in a wider cultural context rich in negative connotations, associations and appraisals. All that is required then to write a story about an alternative spiritual group is to suggest the possibility that they may be a cult and to associate them with previous examples of alleged deviance. In this way, journalists are able to take shortcuts in their writing process, as investigative journalism and fact checking are less important if you are simply creating a story based on allegations, which can be slotted easily into a pre-existing narrative, rather than fact.
Framing Techniques Used to Manipulate Us Against Alternative Spiritual Groups
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”― Malcolm X
Many of the framing techniques used to dehumanise alternative spiritual groups are based on propaganda techniques that have been used throughout history to influence the masses. A skilful journalist weaves many of these techniques together in such a way that it appears that there is no manipulation taking place, just reporting of a story’s facts. As we are accustomed to looking at media outlets as sources for truth, and often have no way to personally verify the reality of every statement presented to us on a daily basis by the media, it is easy to take everything we are told at face value. By doing this, however, we are easily deceived, especially when stories intertwine aspects of truth with mistruth and appeal to our emotions to be more convincing.
Sometimes a critical reading of an article is enough to uncover anomalies in a story, such as seeing how headlines can be used in a misleading fashion that does not relate to the story; being on the look out for unproven allegations or complaints that are stated as fact; or observing how groups are often demonised simply through being compared with previous so-called “cults”. It is the manipulation that we can’t see however which can be most dangerous and lead to us being deceived.
Let’s take a look at some of the common techniques used to create aversion throughout society towards alternative spirituality.
Deviance Labelling and Atrocity Stories
One of the quickest ways to turn public favour against a group or its leader is to make them seem less than human by labelling them as deviants and associating them with activities that society deems morally wrong. Professor of Religious Studies Susan Palmer tells us that in France for example it is ‘customary for the French media to refer to leaders of NRMs as “pedophiles”‘ despite lack of evidence.
Another Professor of Religious Studies Lonnie Kliever Due states that the idea of NRMs as ‘highly regimented groups that control the thoughts and actions of their members through a variety of “mind control” techniques’ is firmly entrenched in the public imagination thanks to the “media fixation on the horror stories of former members and the propaganda of anti-cult groups”. These stories often include a pattern of similar allegations including “brainwashing”, “mind-control”, sexual, financial and physical exploitation or the breaking up of families that are frequently parroted staples in anti-cult rhetoric. Labels such as brainwashing or mind-control which have been legally discredited, but are still commonly used in the media, serve multiple purposes. They paint the group leader as a dictator and the adherent as someone with a propensity for being psychologically manipulated. They also provide the apostate (a hostile person who leaves a group and later begins to attack it) with an excuse as to why they may previously have been affiliated with a group they are now attacking so vehemently.
Deviance labelling and atrocity stories also allow more mundane accusations to be made sensational. For instance, unless covering a celebrity, a story of a broken dysfunctional marriage in itself will not be that interesting to the press. However when framed as a broken marriage and abandoned husband whose wife has run off to join a mind controlling “cult” journalists are easily able to create a sordid story that captures the curiosity of a society who are eager for gossip and may congratulate themselves for being clever enough to not get caught up in a similar situation. It doesn’t matter that the allegations can be proven false, or that the newly distraught partner never had cause for concern in the previous years their spouse was attending the same spiritual group: if you label a group as deviant and sell atrocity stories then you will get media attention. In some cases apostates from one group make a name and career for themselves as expert witnesses and go on to apply the same labels to many other groups on call without any direct experience.
Current affairs shows in particular often advertise on their websites for people who want to share their stories on air. It is then easy for anyone with a grudge against an NRM to concoct a story around previous “cult exposés” in order to provide the media with a sensational story that will get broad coverage.
In many cases these depictions breach codes of practice for reporting. An Australian media authority ruled in 2012 that a current affair show had breached the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s Code of Practice because their story was likely to “provoke or perpetuate intense dislike, serious contempt or severe ridicule against a person or a group”. The breach was for falsely depicting a Brazilian tribe of Indians as a suicide cult that encouraged the murder of disabled babies. In another case, mountaineer Tim Macartney-Snape was defamed by being accused of being in a cult and corrupting youth. As reported by Quadrant journalist Geoffrey Luck:
It was thirteen years before Supreme Court Judge David Kirby held that the flagship current affairs program had defamed him, rejecting all the ABC’s defences of truth, qualified privilege and fair comment. The settlement amounted to around a million dollars including costs and interest, but could not undo the damage to Macartney-Snape’s reputation.
The Selective Use of Cinematic and Photographic Techniques
Often as part of framing a group or its leader, reporters will rely on the use of cinematic and photographic techniques to portray them as evil. Framing in this respect can include:
- The choice of photographs or footage used to depict the group leader and those attending the group. Often the image / frame chosen will show people with expressions on their face which could be interpreted negatively.
- Deliberately constructing news footage to display a group in a particular way. For instance, in France, television networks co-operated with a French anti-cult association to portray a religious community’s headquarters as a concentration camp.1
- Spooky or dark music may also be used in a similar way. The French New Age farming community Horus received similar treatment in a documentary when children playing in a field were filmed from behind a barbed wire fence. Accompanied by spooky music this also evoked the image of a concentration camp.2
- News footage may also be sped up, slowed down, digitally altered or repeated over and over in order to create an emotional response in the viewer.
There are also examples of reporters ambushing alternative spiritual groups using hidden cameras or recording equipment in order to try and catch them committing offences. What tends to happen, however, is rather than being caught out groups are actually framed. An example of this occurred to students of alternative health group Universal Medicine in October 2012. A self-proclaimed “cult expert” abused the trust of Universal Medicine’s founder claiming that he did not believe them to be a cult and wanted to ask some questions of the student body. Once allowed on stage everything changed. Women in the audience with hidden cameras jumped up and started filming. The audience were accused of being brainwashed cult followers in what appeared to be a pre-planned diatribe. A film crew tried to get in through the door and it was later discovered a camera had been hidden in the roof.
Recordings from such instances of ambushing may then be edited, used out of context and framed to fit whatever narrative the show wants to present. For example, if people try to cover cameras because they are seen as an illegal invasion of privacy, the footage can be used to depict people as trying to cover cameras because they have something to hide.
The Fabrication of Stories by Journalists
Not to let truth get in the way of a good story, journalists have also been known to lie, manipulate and use other devious tactics in order to get a “good” story. This is a technique possibly originating with the oldest tabloid, the American Daily News in 1919. If they did not have any news they would simply make it up and then stage a salacious photograph to fit.
In the case of Aumist leader Gilbert Bourdin, a journalist assisted an apostate to “recover” memories of sexual abuse that was alleged to have been perpetrated by Bourdin when she was 14 years old. The charges were later dropped when the alleged victim could not recall any distinguishing marks on the body of Bourdin (who happened to be covered in tattoos).
Journalists have been known to personally lodge complaints with regulatory agencies about NRMs and then report on them as if they had been made by third parties. Allegations and complaints may be reported as factual occurrences and are continuously used in stories even once the complaints have been resolved and groups are vindicated of the accusations.
Cherry picking of apostates and expert testimony
Analysing anti-NRM sentiment in the media shows that journalists will often repeatedly seek testimony from the same outspoken and willing cult critics and informants to comment on a wide variety of different groups. These may be self-proclaimed cult experts from religion or the anti-cult movement, atheistic scientists, apostates from NRMs or others who are familiar with anti-cult rhetoric and are predisposed to take a negative stance towards alternative spirituality.
Religious scholar Nancy Ammerman explains the position of the academic community in regards to self-proclaimed “cult experts” and their possible motivations:
Although these people often call themselves ‘cult experts,’ they are certainly not recognized as such by the academic community. [Anti-cultists] have a direct ideological (and financial) interest in arousing suspicion and antagonism against what they call ‘cults’.”
Other scholars have referred to the anti-cult movement as an industry.3 In some cases individuals who are used as analysts and “expert witnesses” by the media have charged thousands of dollars a day to engage in deprogramming practices including psychological and physical abuse. Ironically, psychological and physical abuse is often an allegation levelled at NRMs.
Critics of NRMs are hardly unbiased observers. One self-proclaimed expert on cults, who previously held the position of Head of Religious Broadcasting for the ABC, has described small Christian offshoots as “fleas on the body of society”. He has also engaged in misrepresentation to obtain NRM co-operation in order to create sensationalist stories. Another person widely touted in the media as a “cult expert” despite possessing no relevant qualifications was cited as having “a personal hatred for all religious cults.”
Tellingly, in a survey of 78 journalists by sociologist James Richardson,4 60% indicated they had visited an anti-cult group. The majority of respondents when asked to give their impressions of these visits suggested their encounters were negative, labelling anti-cultists as “fanatical, fervent, intolerant, overreacting and over-zealous”. Despite these impressions, anti-cult “experts” are regularly quoted as sources in sensationalist media stories, with some cases of news corporations directing readers to contact the quoted “expert” directly for more information.
Another favourite of sensationalist media are vocal apostates who criticise their former religion or belief. Religious scholars however are dubious about the reliability of apostates of new religions. Scholars claim that apostates who vocally attack the group they previously affiliated with represent only a tiny percentage of a much larger group of people who come and go from small religions without becoming negative. Professor of Sociology Stuart Wright states that apostates who do go on revenge campaigns against their previous groups ‘…seem to have been, without exception, coached and counseled by the “deprogramming” or “exit counseling” movement.’ 5
Front End / Back End Disproportionality
New religious movements often suffer from a phenomena known as “front end / back end disproportionality” where much media attention is received regarding initial unsubstantiated charges or allegations against a group. When legal cases fall apart, however, or groups are vindicated they are subsequently ignored by the press. Professor of Sociology Stuart Wright states that this leaves a “residual halo of suspicion” surrounding NRMs and the impression for the public that the group was guilty of the disproven charges.6
Religious scholar Brendan Doherty states that when the press do cover acquittals they may be used to create further controversy around the group in a “No-charges-filed-an-outrage” type of story. This type of approach frames coverage to express indignation from apostates, politicians or “concerned members of the public” and once again creates a residue of suspicion around the group in question.
Related to “front end / back end disproportionality” is the technique of only giving NRM group members or leaders a token right of reply. Often members are confronted in an attack / ambush style of journalism where they are approached unexpectedly and asked leading questions with an assumption of guilt. When they try to answer they may be overridden with new questions and not allowed to finish, or only given a short amount of time to reply to extensive accusations. In comparison, “expert witnesses” or apostates who uphold the “evil cult” narrative are often given ample time to air their accusations. Often NRM members lack the necessary media training and experience to interview effectively, and so are easily manipulated by the interviewer, or come across as lacking intelligence or answering superficially with something to hide.
“Front end / back end disproportionality” has a cumulative effect over time. As the public continuously sees accusations against a small number of allegedly harmful groups, but is not shown the vindication of these groups, the idea that all NRMs are dangerous is embedded ever more firmly within cultural understanding.
Repetition and Appeals to Authority
Similar to advertising (and political propaganda), when a clear and simple message is repeated over and over again, it becomes ingrained in our psyche. When this message is repeated by those we see as authorities of truth – the press, scientists, politicians etc – the message is implanted even more strongly to the point that it may seem like an infallible truth. Charles Darwin once remarked that “a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, whilst the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.”
It is not only youths who are impressionable to having messages ingrained in their psyche, which they then follow without conscious awareness. We only have to catch ourselves absent-mindedly singing the lyrics of a catchy song we’ve heard frequently on the radio, or realise we are choosing a product or brand to buy without thinking about it because we’ve seen it advertised repeatedly, to see how susceptible we can be too.
The message that is given by labelling an alternative spiritual group a “cult” is simple enough to be easily ingrained through repetition, but is also full of negative connotation and meaning. It appeals to our greatest instincts of self preservation and the protection of those we care about from groups we are repeatedly yet illegitimately told may be harmful. By endlessly repeating that small spiritual groups are harmful, the media inculcates a fear toward alternative spirituality as a whole that bypasses reason: this stirs, and causes people to follow, their instincts and the message associated with them fed by the media – which is that so-called “cults” are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. This leads to disastrous consequences not just for adherents to NRMs but for freedom of expression and choice with spirituality in general.
The Very Human Consequences of Media Sensationalism
If you think that propaganda and framing in the media can’t really be that influential, it’s worth knowing what happened live on consumer radio on October 30, 1938. As a Halloween special author Orson Welles read a script of War of the Worlds (a story of alien invasion) on air framed as a real news broadcast. Despite stating at the beginning of the broadcast that it was fictional, he managed to convince 3.5 million people that the world was under attack from outer space. People were so afraid as a result of the broadcast that many left with their family for the country. Some held up petrol stations at gunpoint for gasoline.
Researchers Robert Wyer and Thomas Srull explain how framing works to make particular pieces of information more easily recollectable using the analogy of “referent bins”. Related pieces of information, in this case about NRMs, are stored in “bins” in our long-term memory. These bins are organised so that more frequently and recently used pieces of information are stored at the top of the bins, making the information more accessible. We then tend to base our decisions and judgements on the most accessible pieces of information available to us. Because people rely heavily on news media for information about the world, the most accessible information about NRMs therefore comes from news about NRMs they consume.
This is highly concerning given that research has shown that journalists have an overwhelmingly negative approach to NRMs, and that many scholars believe the media to essentially be in league, or to work as a mouthpiece for the anti-cult movement in many areas of the world. On top of this, due to the way we currently consume media, it is suggested that the information we receive may be processed uncritically. Professor Dawn Archer explains how without realising we can make assumptions which may not be based on complete facts:
Many people absorb the news when they are doing other things in which case they are not cognitively thinking about what they are being told – and end up making assumptions which, some of the time, are based on less than the full facts.
The effects of negative bias and framing towards alternative spiritual groups and the cultural stigma that has been created around alternative spirituality has grave consequences for its victims. There have been cases of people losing their jobs and even custody of their children after being associated with a group that was portrayed as a dangerous cult. In some countries almost all NRMs are perceived as apocalyptic and planning mass suicide. In Israel, the portrayal of a Christian denomination as a “doomsday cult” justified their deportation. NRMs have faced bomb threats or the literal bombing of their buildings. Many scholars believe that the media played a large role in instigating the violence that took place at Mt Carmel in WACO Texas and led to the loss of many innocent lives.
Research has shown that viewing violence increases the fear of becoming a victim of violence, which results in a mistrust of others and self-protective behaviours. Beyond self-governance, in some cases media reporting on NRMs has directly led to or aimed to influence governmental oversight for alternative spiritual groups. At times the media itself has aimed to rally the public around demanding that “cults are closely monitored”.7
By framing NRMs in a negative light, reporters not only dehumanise the real people inside those NRMs, but undermine their expression of free will and depict them as having a lowered social and spiritual status.8 This in turn makes adherents of NRMs easy targets for government and law enforcement sanctions.
Media consumers are trained to fear alternative spirituality perpetuating a cycle of governance which is reflected at an individual and institutional level. At best this leads to media consumers who self-censor their spiritual yearnings and at worst to spiritually repressive cultural environments like that of France, where the media, anti-cult movement and government policies have made it almost impossible to meet as a group to practise any form of alternative spirituality without facing huge amounts of discrimination and bigotry.
Sociologist Lonnie Griffin suggests that only 1% of new religions receive coverage in the mainstream media. If rather than attacking spiritual minorities by framing them as dangerous and illegitimate groups to create sensationalised news stories, the media instead published accounts of positive and socially beneficial experiences from the other 99% of new religious movements, then the wider public would have a much more balanced view of the spiritual alternatives to major religious denominations. Until that happens, which seems unlikely, the media will remain a weapon of propaganda for those in the world who would seek to restrict our spiritual freedoms.
- Shupe, Anson (1998) “The Role of Apostates in the North American Anti-Cult Movement” in the Politics of Religious Apostacy, D. Bromley, Ed., pp. 209,212-213, Westport, CT, Praeger; Palmer, S.J. (1998) “Apostates and Their Role in the Construction of Grievance Claims against the Northeast Kingdom Community Church,” in the Politics of Religious Apostacy, Id. at p. 198.
- Journalists’ Attitudes toward New Religious Movements, James T. Richardson and Barend van Driel, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 39, No. 2, Special Issue: Mass Media and Unconventional Religion (Dec., 1997), pp. 116-136
- Wright, Stuart, “Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection” 1987, and Barker, Eileen, “Defection From the Unification Church: Some Statistics and Distinctions,” 1988
- Wright, Stuart A. (December 1997). “Media Coverage of Unconventional Religion: Any “Good News” for Minority Faiths?”. Review of Religious Research 39 (2): 101–115. doi:10.2307/3512176.JSTOR 3512176.
- The Herald Sun – Australia August 16, 2009, Rein in Family cult – article no longer online