The Mass Media

and New Religious Movements

Dr. James A. Beckford

This article represents a very interesting analysis of the relationship between the mass media and new religious movements. Although many Vaishnavas and Hindus would have an understandable difficulty in referring to ISKCON as a new religion, it must be conceded that, from a sociological perspective, Vaishnavism is new to Western culture and as such this article is of interest to ISKCON's members. The Western response to ISKCON is certainly worthy of study, although it may be deemed more appropriate to study ISKCON as an established religious movement which has been transplanted in the West. A study of the subject from that perspective, which balances knowledge of the individual traditions now lumped together as 'new religions', would certainly lead to a greater understanding of the issues involved for the host cultures perspective but also for the perspectives of alternative and culturally different worldviews.

One of the reasons cited by some rationalists for their dislike of religion is that it is apparently inseparable from violent conflict (Candland, 1992). The history of religious wars in Europe and Latin America in particular has often served as a justification for abandoning religion altogether. Many heirs of the various Enlightenments have confidently believed that the demise of religious belief and practice would entail a lessening of social conflict. It follows that religion was not expected to be a source of conflict in a largely secular society. But I want to argue, on the contrary, that the very opposite has occurred in countries where reported levels of religious beliefs and belonging have been declining for many decades but where unconventional new religious movements have developed.

My argument will be that some aspects of religion have become more controversial and conflictual for the very reason that general levels of religious understanding and practice are so low. Unconventional forms of religion have become especially problematic at a time when large numbers of people find even the most conventional religion alien. In these circumstances, it is the new and unusual kinds of religious groups which encounter most hostility. In their turn, these controversial groups have sometimes exacerbated matters by responding with even more hostility towards their detractors. This vicious spiral has occasionally erupted into massive conflicts and bloodshed. Jonestown in 1978 and Waco in 1993 are the most tragic examples. But I believe that there are also echoes of this process to be heard in the suspicions frequently voiced by the nominally Christian public in the UK about non Christian minorities. Tariq Modood's (1994) characterisation of this phenomenon as ,cultural racism' is challenging but not unproblematic. I shall focus this paper, however, on the part played by journalists in conflicts involving so-called cults, i.e. those new religious movements (NRMS) which have been outstandingly controversial since their emergence in the West in the 1960s. A central theme will be that there are connections between the low-level prejudice displayed against so-called cults in everyday journalism and the spectacular outbreaks of conflict which occur from time to time around controversial NRMS.

Controversial Cults
It is not difficult to see why many of the NRMs which emerged in the USA and Western Europe in the 1960s, such as Scientology, the Unification Church ('Moonies'), the International Society for Krishna Consciousness ('Hare Krishna') and the Children of God (now called 'the Family'), quickly became controversial. Firstly, the simple fact that so many of them seemed to arrive at roughly the same time was enough to persuade some people that a new 'invasion of the body snatchers' had occurred. Secondly, the movements which drew on Asian philosophies and cultures tended to arouse suspicions merely for being foreign and therefore perceived as threatening. Thirdly, the people who were targeted by the new movements were mainly young, relatively well educated, middle-class students. They were not down-and-outs or obviously deprived. This meant that their aggrieved relatives and former friends tended to have the money, connections and confidence required to make their complaints heard in centres of influence and power, at least at local levels.

The list of complaints voiced against controversial NRMs grew so long that anti-cult organisations began to emerge in the early 1970s to combat what they considered to be a major menace to young people. Allegations of economic exploitation, mental cruelty, the deliberate alienation of recruits from their families, deceptive recruiting practices, harmful diets and life-styles, sexual abuse and, of course, brainwashing were widespread. The high-water mark of anti-cult feeling probably occurred in the late 1970s following the death of more than 900 followers of the Revd. Jim Jones at Jonestown, Guyana. This was also the period of the most rapid growth in membership of the most notorious cults.

Yet, for all the hostility and suspicion expressed towards NRMs at that time, only a tiny proportion of the population of any Western country had ever had any direct contact with any of the movements. Of course, some people came to know about them in the course of trying to 'rescue' relatives or friends from the movements' clutches. But very few people attended NRM meetings or read their literature. Nevertheless, the movements' notoriety was confirmed many times by opinion polls which showed cult leaders to be among the most strongly disliked celebrities of their time.

My own research into cult controversies was able to confirm that even people directly affected by NRMs relied for their information overwhelmingly on the mass media. Very few people managed or tried to contact the movements directly. Instead, they preferred to contact journalists who had published stories about the movements. Indeed, given the secretiveness or defensiveness of most controversial cults, some journalists came to play a crucial role as go-betweens and arbitrators between NRMS, their members and angry outsiders. Only ex-members could rival the privileged position of a few investigative journalists; but most ex-members were understandably reluctant to talk freely about their former commitments. In these circumstances, the role of groups in the anti-cult movement (ACW has assumed significant proportions (Beckford, 1985; Bromley & Shupe, 1993). Cult controversies cannot be properly understood unless the symbiotic relationship between these anti-cult groups and journalists is taken into account.

The Anti-Cult Movement
Some anti-cult movement organisations have become influential and materially secure over the past twenty years. They are now powerful enough to have the sympathetic ear of politicians, leading church representatives and sections of the medical and psychiatric establishments. National-level organisations have consolidated themselves, and cross-national Links are slowly emerging. In short, today's ACM is much more substantial and effective than its predecessors in the continuous struggle between mainstream and marginal versions of Christianity'. Moreover, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists, for example, have always been the target of critical attacks mounted by representatives of mainstream churches, and these large sectarian organisations have also had to contend with the aggressive criticism that disgruntled ex members have showered on them. Yet, these 'established sects' (Yinger, 1970) have never had to cope with the incessant barrage of highly public and politicised attacks that the ACM now routinely directs against NRMS.

The fact that the ACM's dismissal of NRMs is not based on primarily theological considerations and that the aim is not to convert members into mainstream Christians enhances the movement's appeal to journalists. The latter find the ACM useful precisely because it attacks the very existence and modus operandi of NRMs without drawing on doctrinal issues. It is actually common for the ACM's activists to disclaim any 'religious' intent or any animus against religion as such. They prefer the strategy of exposing alleged illegality and exploitation in NRM's. In other words, the critics' aim is to disqualify 'cults' from the category of 'religion' altogether, thereby framing problems as 'economic', 'political' or 'psychological'.

As I argued earlier, part of the success of the ACM is due to the high degree of religious illiteracy or the simple lack of familiarity with things religious among the nominally Christian sections of most advanced industrial societies in the West. It can therefore trade on fear of the unknown at a time when so few young adults have any experience of 'normal' religion with which they can statistically compare NRMS. As a result, it is not difficult to catch the popular imagination with allegations of a sci-fi nature about the supposedly weird and dangerous goings-on inside cults. Journalists find this approach to NRMs virtually irresistible, even though, according to McDonnell (1994: 92) 'Religion does not fit easily into the dominant world-view of most contemporary broadcasters who are often ill prepared to deal with religion, being indifferent, or occasionally, actively hostile'. At least, sensational stories about NRMs require no knowledge of religion on the part of their audience. The focus on the non religious aspects of the movements means that there is no need to tackle issues of religious belief or experience. And the parallels that are emphasised with stories of fraud and exploitation in politics, business and crime provide the audience with a recognisable script. In short, the ACM presents journalists with material which needs very little adaptation before it can be easily digested by audiences with no taste for religion-let alone religious controversies. In this sense, it is not difficult for journalists to deal with religion (page McDonnell, 1994), especially when they concentrate on expressions of religion which challenge conventional ideas or practices. Indeed, the very controversial character of some religious phenomena makes the journalists' life relatively easy in so far as conflict can easily be made to serve as the thematic 'line' of a story. Thus, although journalists may feel uncomfortable having to report on, for example, angry protests against publication of The Satanic Verses which call their own professional objectivity into question, the story-line conforms readily with the 'script' of social and cultural conflicts.

I shall now analyses with examples, the ways in which the mass media's tendency to portray NRMs as controversial helps to generate and perpetuate conflict.

The Portrayal of NRMs in the Mass Media

1. Conflict and news-worthiness
The most elementary observation about print and broadcast media's portrayal of NRMs is that the movements' activities are newsworthy only when conflicts are involved. In the quarter of a century that I have been studying NRMs in W. Europe, N. America and Japan I have rarely found articles or programmes which did not use conflict as (a) the main occasion for the portrayal and (b) as the principal means of structuring the account. Even those accounts which aspire towards a balanced, i.e. two-sided, presentation of the issues tend nevertheless to allow the conflictual aspects to predominate. 'Cults are problematic' must be the long-term effect on audiences of exposure to this type of journalism. 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-e movement is pounced on as an excuse for investigating all the others. 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' (quoted by Maffett, 1994: 159).

These stories about the so-called cult menace are as much about speculation as about news. They use events relating to one particular movement as a platform from which to launch 'scare' stories about the possible threat that the entire category of cults represents for other people in other places. This was an especially noticeable feature of reporting in W. European papers about the siege at Waco. In the absence day after day of new facts about the Branch Davidians journalists from various places turned to the questions of whether a comparable problem could occur in their own countries and whether the authorities ought to be taking pre-emptive steps to avert such a possibility. Opinions were divided, but my impression was that the view which prevailed, on balance, was that the problem of armed cultists was a uniquely American phenomenon. Nevertheless, there was also a strong note of warning against the risk of allowing a similar conflict to develop in European countries. Vigilance was the order of the day. The virtual globalisation of mass communications thereby helps journalists to frame NRMs as primarily conflictual even in countries where the movements are unknown or unproblematic.

2. Conflict as the Leitmotiv
Conflict is the Leitmotiv which connects journalistic portrayals of NRMs together. This is evident in the extensive use that journalists and programme producers make of the 'negative summary event' ( Rosengren, Arvidsson. & Sturesson, 1978; Beckford, 1985). This is the practice of creating continuity between episodic (especially slow moving) stories by adding a capsule summary of the negative features of the phenomenon in focus. This reminds the audience of the sequence of reported events into which the current story can be slotted. It also stamps a particular 'mood' on the story even if the very latest episode has not been primarily about conflict.

3. Cross-references to conflict
A third aspect of the journalistic construction of cult conflicts is that stories are frequently cross-references to other mass media items. TV programmes, for example, use still shots of newspaper and magazine headlines as devices for emphasising shock and horror. Similarly, the still photographs of cult leaders which are sometimes used in TV programmes are shown staring out of the pages of the print media. Presumably the intention is to try to enhance the sense of realism and veracity by showing that stories about a particular NRM or leader have already appeared in the print media and must therefore be true. Since the information and images that are 'quoted' in this way between different stories and/or media tend to be overwhelmingly unflattering and critical, the effect is likely to reinforce the generally negative image of NRMs. In turn, this hardens public opinion against the movements and fuels the anti-cult campaigns.

An allied feature of the reporting of cult-related conflicts in which the journalists have difficulty gaining access to relevant material is that they tend to substitute their own operation for the ostensibly central subject. This was especially clear in the case of Waco where access to the Branch Davidian compound was denied to journalists. The focus of many stories therefore became the media circus on the compound's perimeter. The fact that so many journalists were present seemed to guarantee the importance of the event at moments when nothing significant seemed to be happening. Writing stories about the stories being written by other journalists took the place of direct reports on the siege of the Branch Davidians. Perhaps this practice also helps journalists to cope with the competition for customers between different publications or programmes. They can keep a story running despite the lack of directly relevant material.

4. Conflict feeds on stories of conflict
The next point is that, just as anti-cult activists commonly supply journalists with negative copy about NRM's, the hostile depiction's of the movements in the mass media are then recycled as further evidence in anti-cult propaganda campaigns . There is in fact a mutually beneficial and reinforcing dynamic at work. It is difficult for NRM leaders or for disinterested parties to break into this cosy circle in order to challenge or correct the dominant imagery. Given the public's heavy reliance on the mass media for information about unconventional religion, the close alliance between the ACMs and journalists makes it difficult for non-controversial and favourable material about NRMs to be published or broadcast. The logic of suspicion which turns many investigative journalists into allies of the ACM helps to set the scene for the official agents of control. Knowing that the public has a very poor opinion of NRMS, largely as a result of stereotyping in the mass media, police officers are not taking much of a risk if they take high-handed action against these unpopular movements. Journalists function as the principal gatekeepers of public opinion especially on matters with which the person-in-the-street is not normally familiar. Their overwhelmingly critical portrayal of the movements can therefore contribute indirectly towards the latter's control. Indeed, as many informed commentators on the debacle at Waco have pointed out, the FBI, the US Department of Justice, journalists and programme maker all tended to favour the testimony of psychological experts whose anti-cult views were well known in advance. One of the many scandalous aspects of the whole affair was the studied refusal to give credence to the testimony of sociological, anthropological, historical and theological experts on controversial NRMS. It is unlikely that any of these scholars with first-hand experience of researching these movements in their natural settings over many years would have supported the strategy and tactics adopted by the Bureau of Arms, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the FBI. Instead, credence was selectively given to opinions rooted in individualistic abnormal psychology. This is always newsworthy, as was shown by the fascination with the psychological condition of David Koresh. By contrast, the strictly social dynamics of exclusive, high-demand religious groups and the cultural force of apocalyptic millennialism were deliberately screened out of the mass media coverage.

5. Conflicts, journalists and control
If the mass media portrayals of NRM'S, based mainly on the one-sided evidence supplied by activists in the ACM, are sufficiently numerous and disturbing, there is a strong probability that social control agents will have to be seen to respond.

Legislators and police officials in particular find themselves under pressure to say what they intend to do about the alleged wrongdoing and outrages perpetrated by cults. 'Could Jonestown happen in Britain?' or 'What are you doing to prevent another Waco happening here?' are the kind of questions put with monotonous frequency to officials in the wake of those two tragedies. Journalists seem not to be interested in the specific circumstances which led to such spectacular disasters. Instead, all the emphasis is on the presumed and unquestioned resemblance between the People's Temple or the Branch Davidians and cults in the UK. The authorities are forced to respond to these leading questions and are not given the opportunity to express doubts or reservations about the practice of 'lumping all cults together' (Barker, 1989).

This dramatisation of the situation increases public nervousness and official defensiveness, neither of which is conducive to clear thinking and fairness. There is a danger, then, that inadvisable, panic reactions may follow. In the case of the Branch Davidians, for example, the ante at Waco was upped because of the intervention of television reporting. Lives were endangered because the story line was created and embedded in a pernicious dualism which legitimated the 'authorities' and discouraged unconventional perspectives and opinions. The shared mentality-the corporate mentality-was served as the cultural mainstream [and] was reinforced, not challenged.

Waco's Branch Davidians, then, were victims of a media-induced disaster, executed before the eyes of the nation on television. The polarisation that led to the catastrophe at Waco was inherent in neither the religious group itself-nor even in the FBI. (Jones & Baker, 1994: 151)

Numerous commentators have blamed the Editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald for running the full episode of a hard-hitting expose of the Branch Davidians immediately prior to the BATF's assault on the compound. This allegedly broke an agreement with the BATF to withhold publication; and it probably forced the Bureau to take its ill-conceived action earlier than it had intended. On the other hand, it seems that the FBI placed considerably tighter restrictions on journalists covering the siege than is normal in similar events. In other words, the trade-off between journalists and authorities worked to the greater advantage of the latter. Not enough attention has been given to the consequences of sensationalist depiction's of religion in a secular age. To adapt the old adage, I am not trying to kill the messenger for bringing bad news but I am accusing the messenger of fermenting mischief by relentlessly peddling negative stereotypes of NRMS.

6. One conflict can hide another
Journalists' fascination with the tragedies of Jonestown and Waco stemmed not only from the exotic and improbable details of the two community's ways of life but also from the suspicion that the cult controversies were only the tip of the iceberg. Investigative journalists had a field day with their inquiries into the possibility either that people in authority had bungled the operations to prevent loss of life and/or that attempts had been made afterwards to cover up the errors made by the forces of order. In other words, cult-related conflicts could be connected with broader concerns about the use and misuse of state power.

Other examples of stories linking cults with conflicts against the state include the bombing by police of the anarcho-ecology group, MOVE, in Philadelphia; the killing by police in 1983 of all six followers of Lindberg Sanders, a self-styled 'Black Jesus', in a shoot-out in Memphis; and various armed assaults on dissident Mormons in Utah. The result is usually a polarisation of journalistic and public opinion between, on the one hand, the view that agents of the state acted negligently or illegally and, on the other, the view that the same agents should have acted more decisively to suppress the movement in question before the problem had become unmanageable by peaceful means. But both cases illustrate the more general point that it is invariably the conflicts associated with NRMs which make them newsworthy even when responsibility for the conflicts is attributed to the state.

An interesting twist on this theme quickly emerged in European print-media accounts of Waco. The long and slow-moving story of the siege provided an opportunity for journalists to investigate in depth the issues of gun ownership and control in the USA. In fact, the amount of attention devoted to this context of the action taken against the Branch Davidians sometimes outweighed reports of events at Waco. The conflictual image of cults was thereby reinforced by linking them with a separate conflict about firearms. One conflict was 'nested' in another.

This is not the place to analyse in detail the full repertoire of journalistic devices for depicting NRMS. Elsewhere I have summarised the tendency for the mass media to characterise or caricature the movements as threatening, strange, exploitative, oppressive and provocative (Beckford, 1985). A content analysis of selected British print-media between 1975 and 1985 showed how this sensationalist approach helps to cement the public perception of cults as, at best, weird and, at worst, destructive (Beckford & Cole, 1988). There is strong confirmation of this analysis from the USA (van Driel & Richardson, 1988a, 1988b).

On the other hand, it is clear that the reasons for the biased presentation of NRMs in the mass media are rooted in commercial pressures, cultural stereotypes and the lack of time for journalists to take a more nuanced and longer-term view of the movements (Beckford, 1994). It should also be recognised that some journalists have exposed the criminal activities of a few cult leaders and have therefore been helpful in checking abuses (Mitchell, Mitchell & Ofshe, 1980). Indeed, the public is heavily dependent on the mass media for information about unconventional and sometimes secretive religious movements. My purpose is definitely not to denigrate these positive benefits of investigative journalism, for a healthy democracy depends in part on a combative press.

At the same time, however, it seems to me that the public is right to expect that journalists should be more methodical, discriminating, careful and open-minded than they normally are when it comes to, portraying NRMS. Their knee-jerk categorisation of the movements as problematic and conflictual is not only prejudiced and lazy but it also feeds directly into public ignorance and a less than even-handed attitude towards the movements on the part of social control agencies. The cosy relationship that many journalists have with the ACM can be an excuse for them not to do their research properly.

This paper was originally delivered at the International Conference on Religion and Conflict Armagh, 20-21 May 1994.


See, as examples of mainstream Christian antipathy towards marginal movements, Horton Davies, 1954; Hutten, 1950; Hoekema, 1969; Martin, 1955.

My analysis is based partly on a systematic scrutiny of print-media items about NRMs in selected newspapers and magazines in the UK between 1975 and 1985 and partly on a thorough but more impressionistic study of the portrayal of NRMs in British, American and French newspapers and magazines since 1985.

The regular Newsletter of FAIR, the main ACM in Britain, devotes a great deal of space to print and broadcast reports of problematic NRMS. There is no evidence that these reports are checked for accuracy or bias. It is enough that they have appeared in print.

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