Representations of Peoples Temple in the U.S. Press: 1978-2018

by Ekaterina Stetsyuk

This study – written in the Russian language – sought to examine the representations of Peoples Temple appearing in the U.S. press from 1978 to 2018. This research is designed to assess the hypothesis that, due to the fact of release of many government documents about Peoples Temple and the amounts of scholar reflection made during 40 years, the ‘Jonestown canon’ is not closed and has acquired new narrative dimensions. On this ground, the main aim of this paper is to determine the particular models of discourse representation characteristic of each year considered: 1978, 1988, 1998, 2008, and 2018.

The research is based on the analysis of a corpus collected from 9 U.S. newspapers: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post (as the top U.S. newspapers), and The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, and The Press Democrat (as the top San Francisco newspapers). The overall sample of texts consists of 1077 articles.

The theoretical framework of the study is rooted in the sociocognitive approach to the critical discourse analysis (CDA) presented by Teun van Dijk. This approach focuses on determination the interferences between discourse structures, mainly news texts, and its (re)production by social structures and further cognitive processing by potential recipients.

As a method of the analysis, here is applied the methodological synergy combining topic modeling and CDA suggested by Anton and Peter Törnberg. This approach involves two steps: 1) computer-assisted render of the corpus achieving topics and specific discursive fields; 2) micro- and macrostructural analysis of the most representative examples of such fields. This methodological combination prevents ‘cherry-picking’ the data at the level of corpus collecting and allows to focus on the particular texts during the qualitive analysis.

According to data analyzed, the following typology of the models of discourse representations of Peoples Temple is proposed:

(1) 1978-1988: ‘Peoples Temple is a destructive cult, with an insane leader, which committed monstrous suicide/murder in the jungle’;

(2) 1988-1998: ‘Peoples Temple is a group of weak-willed followers, or cultists, of their insane leader, which committed suicide/murder, and which is associated with a huge tragedy of survivors and relatives of these victims’;

(3) 1998-2018: ‘Peoples Temple is a people’s attempt to build a just society which failed and ended with mass suicide/murder caused by their leader’.

These results illustrate that ‘the canon of Jonestown’ is not closed, but becomes concretized and shows the positive trend to destigmatization of Jonestown victims, Peoples Temple members and the organization as a whole.

The paper consists of 3 chapters. The first chapter provides the theoretical and methodological base of the research. The second chapter examines the contextual factors influenced the formation of the negative image of Peoples Temple before the Jonestown tragedy. The third chapter brings forward the analysis of the corpus and the most representative text of all periods revised.

Key words: Peoples Temple, new religious movements, cults, United States of America, media representations, media image, sociocognitive discourse studies, critical discourse studies

Representations of Peoples Temple in the U.S. Press: 1978-2018 (Paper)



Originally posted on September 8th, 2020.

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