Cults

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.

That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.

But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?

For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:

ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

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Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

If ever there was a crime for which the word "bizarre" was coined, the recent tragic events in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania would likely be "Exhibit A."

Local police allege Barbara Rogers shot and killed her boyfriend, Steven Mineo, whose body was found on July 15 after Rogers called police to report the shooting. According to police, Rogers claims she shot Mineo at his request, over issues involving a religious cult to which both adults apparently belonged.

The Associated Press picks up the barest essence of the story from there, presenting us with a key journalistic issue:

Rogers told officers Mineo, 32, was having “online issues” with a cult and asked her to kill him, said Lt. Steven Williams, of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police. She said her boyfriend believed the cult’s leader to be a “reptilian” pretending to be a human, according to an affidavit.
Rogers, 42, told police the group centers on “aliens and raptures.” Online postings associated with the cult detail a theory that a group of alien reptiles is subverting the human race through mind control.

I should note that I found the AP story at the website of the Wilkes-Barre, Penna., Times Leader, a newspaper whose offices are a mere 45 minutes away, by car, from the crime scene. (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) 

American author Mark Twain once declared, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” In reporting this cult case, I believe the AP got a head start on that total eclipse of the sun due in mid-August.

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The Atlantic: Apparently, 'evangelical' now equals 'cult'

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, every year or two, there is some kind of mainstream media meltdown linked to (a) leaders of a mainstream religious group using the word “cult” to describe another religion or (b) some radical new religious movement behaving in a truly frightening manner that leads to it being labeled a “cult” by secular journalists. The results are often rather icky, from the point of view of logic and information. During one of these blowups a few years ago I wrote, in a GetReligion post:

… I realize that “cult” is a loaded word, whether one is using it in a doctrinal context or in a sociological context. In a mainstream newsrooms, reporters have no business using it in stories about doctrinal conflicts, unless the word is used by one of the groups in a dispute and there is no way to avoid explaining how and why they are using it. Like what? Southern Baptists may refer to Mormonism as a “cult,” because of the latter faith’s radically different doctrine of God, in comparison with traditional forms of Christianity through the ages. But no one, including 99.9 percent of the Baptist leaders I know, would claim that modern Mormonism is a “cult,” in a sociological sense of the word.

Should mainstream reporters use this loaded word at all?

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