The Struggle Over a “Cult”

In 2008, I researched and wrote a magazine article for the 30th anniversary of the events at Jonestown. A year earlier, I had attended the San Francisco premier of Stanley Nelson’s documentary film on Peoples Temple. Prior to that, my own exposure to Peoples Temple and the incidents at Jonestown were almost exclusively from media reports. In short, I was an outsider.

But seeing former Peoples Temple members speak in the documentary intrigued me. I began to realize that the events that occurred and the reasons behind them were not so black and white as has often been portrayed in the media. I made contact with and interviewed former members of the Temple and relatives of former members, most of who lost people at Jonestown. Speaking to people with an insider’s point of view gave me new perspectives, and I became determined that my article would be written with sensitivity toward the people who experienced what I was merely writing about.

I made the decision that in my article, I would refer to PT as “the Temple,” or “the group,” or “the church” or “the organization,” etc. – anything but the word “cult.” If there’s one thing that I picked up from this website and from people I spoke with, it’s that using the word “cult” and not being careful about how it’s used, could be insulting to ex-members or relatives, could mislead readers, and could further advance a stereotype that hinders understanding of what took place.

I notified my editors of this decision and told them that I had purposely not used the word, and why. They seemed to be fine with it.

But when the article was going through final edits, an editor inserted the word “cult” near the beginning of my story.

I complained. I told the editor that I didn’t want it in there and I explained my reasons. But the editor was equally adamant and insisted that it appear in the story; otherwise the story would be “lacking.” When I tried diligently, but failed to convince this person, I then sought a compromise. Since that particular part of the story focused on the Concerned Relatives group and their initial communications with Leo Ryan, I asked that it be worded to convey the idea that some of the relatives suspected that the organization may be a cult. In my mind, that would have made sense, because at least one of my sources in that section did feel the group was a cult. But the editor was uncompromising on this point.

I was upset because I knew that using that word, the way it was inserted in the story, would make at least one of my primary sources (a former member) angry. It turned out I was right. It was a depressing moment for me. I opted to inform the source ahead of time, because I felt badly about the situation, even as I had little control over it. I felt I owed it to the woman to tell her about it, rather than letting her find out when she read the article.

I should pause now to point out something that I alluded to earlier. It’s not the case that there was uniformity among the people I interviewed on this issue. At least two did consider Peoples Temple to be a cult in the technical sense of the word. But that was really beside the point as far as I was concerned. The problem is that the word “cult” has become so skewed and so overused in the mainstream media with regards to Jonestown and Peoples Temple that it often hinders an accurate depiction of what took place. My story choice was to portray events that happened to the people that I interviewed and to let readers draw their own conclusions. My own personal thoughts on the issue were, for the purposes of the article anyway, irrelevant.

To give you an inkling of what I was up against, I also had to object to some of the suggestions for headlines and picture captions. An editor wanted to use phrases such as “mass suicide.” I insisted we not use the word “suicide,” and certainly not use it to characterize all members who died. This editor was still pushing the suicide angle and so I had to assertively ask how it was that s/he thought that 300 children decided to take their own lives. I thankfully prevailed on this point, and the generic “mass suicide” references were nixed.

But I still couldn’t get them to budge on “cult.”

A few days later – when it was too late to implement – I had the idea that I should have withdrawn my story and asked it not be run at all, which I would’ve done if I had thought of it earlier. After the article was published, journalist friends told me that even that may not have worked, that some editors might’ve simply printed my story anyway, whether I objected to an edit or not.

I also feel compelled to bring up some positives here. There were some teachable moments here that succeeded: it was a victory not to have phrases like “mass suicide” or “crazed cult” in the headlines and captions. I should also point out that the editors who disagreed with me aren’t inherently bad people. Like everyone, they are human beings with the same fallibilities we all have and, this incident aside, they are people I’ve learned from and admire for many other reasons. To the extent that I succeeded in changing some viewpoints, I’m thankful. I should also point out that not every reporter has any say (whatsoever) on what the headlines and captions for their story will be. To the extent that I was given a say in the matter, it’s a credit to the editors involved.

I suppose that writing this story for the jonestown report is a way to express both my regret that the word “cult” appeared in the article, and my frustration over it. Part of that frustration stemmed from the fact that I fear – but don’t know for sure – that one of my sources decided not to work with me on another article that we had been discussing, because of it.

Because I’d really like to do another story about the Temple one day – one that doesn’t end on November 18, 1978, as so many articles in the mainstream media tend to do. I’d like to delve into the issues that ex-members had to deal with in re-entering U.S. society. I’d also like to explore the idea that though things ended badly, it’s simply not true that every memory that ex-members have of the Temple is a bad one, as one might assume based on traditional media accounts. One former member, for example, impressed upon me that he has fond memories of building Jonestown. And he says skills he learned there have transferred into how he makes a living today. I’m sure other people have equally compelling stories to tell – stories that have likely received scant attention in the traditional media.

I’d like to thank all of you who have read this far for your indulgence and your understanding. And I hope this article was able to convey that at least one writer has experienced in some small way, some of the same frustrations that many of you may have had in speaking with the media about Jonestown and Peoples Temple.

(Dave de Give is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at