Media Standing in the Way of History

My initial interest in the Jonestown Suicides was ignited by a documentary “The Cult at the End of the World” (ABC) which explored the story of an American Doomsday cult. From that point my research led me to the story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana. I originally intended to focus on a psycho-history analysis of Jim Jones inspired by the histories of dictators such as Mussolini and Castro. However, I discovered that it was the mass of media portrayals of the cult’s legendary mass suicide that held a wealth of information. The interpretations of this tragic event were documented almost consistently from the 70’s till today on radio, television and print. From there it seemed an obvious progression to address the role the media played in modern history and therefore the challenges it proffered to the development of objectivity. The sheer range of sources available on Jonestown made obtaining information easy. However the process of selection had to be thorough as so many resources were personal interest pieces with limited source material used. Again I had to ascertain what was subjective opinion and what was factual analysis.

It seemed evident that the role of the media as historical communication highlighted the unfeasibility of objective history due to the nature of the media industry. The market-driven sensationalism rife in the industry lends itself to bias and therefore in contradictory to objective history. This is a reminder that to some extent all forms of historical communication are shaped by subjective rather than objective forces. This project has allowed me to deepen my understanding not only of one of modern history’s most significant social phenomena but also insight into the nature of historiography and historiographical theory.

(Cressida Rigney’s paper is The Media and the Jonestown Suicides.)