Media Analysis: Jonestown

(This article is adapted from a paper written for a course on “New Religious Movements,” taught by Dr. Rebecca Moore in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.)

In the first days after the mass deaths in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, people wanted to know what had happened and the media made sure to provide as much coverage as possible. In the days, months and years to come media outlets such as the New York Times reported on different aspects of Jonestown, looking at letters written by those who lived in Jonestown, witness accounts, people who had escaped the death and those who had witnessed the aftermath. Numerous books have also been published by former members, relatives, and those interested in trying to solve the mystery of what happened. Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones has the reputation of  being a monster but are his actions to blame or is it the image the media painted of him? By analyzing the New York Times, we will be able to see the user of language, rhetorical strategies, and the impact of repetition.

The newspaper articles that are being analyzed came from the New York Times shortly after November 18, 1978. The language seen throughout the articles is harsh and emotionally charged only to be solidified by repetition. Two of the rhetorical strategies used are pathos and logos. Pathos is a strategy which appeals to the audience’s emotions, by either the language used or the topics being discussed. Logos appeals to the audience’s logical reasoning.

The first aspect we can take a look at is the language used throughout these articles. In 12 of the 20 articles analyzed, the word “Cult” appeared in the headlines. Just the word “cult” alone gives the group – in this case, Peoples Temple – a sinister or negative feel. Cult gives a much different feel to the group when compared to saying “a small religious group.” What was the reason for using this terminology? This is a commonly used rhetorical strategy called pathos which is used to appeal to the reader’s emotions and trigger a specific response, in this case, a negative response to Peoples Temple.

In one article published on November 21, 1978,[i] the use of repetition played a big role in creating a reaction from the reader about Jim Jones, and it was done very effectively. With words such as “suicide,” “killed,” “murdered,” “cult,” “madman,” “blackmailed,” “escape,” “threatened,” “trapped,” and “assassination,” it becomes very clear and evident that there was nothing positive to be conveyed about this charismatic leader.

Using such language to portray an individual dehumanizes and allows for an audience to see a monster, which in turn allows us to treat that individual as a monster. The question is, how did Jim Jones get the image of being such a monster?

Looking at the practices of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones on the surface, everything seemed honorable and humanitarian. In one article, neighbors recall how he helped out around the community without fanfare.[ii]

In Seductive Poison, Deborah Layton also talks about some of the good deeds they did, such as helping a young woman out of an abusive relationship, or helping a young woman and her baby relocate on the expense of the Temple.[iii]

However there was another side being portrayed as well. In one article Jones was accused of abnormal sexual practices within Jonestown as a ploy to establish power.[iv] Although there is just a short paragraph making the accusation, the New York Times fails to ascertain credibility of the source.  It seems to have been reported from an insider. However, there is no other evidence that this claim is accurate. There is also no distinction between whether this statement was made as a factual account or an educated guess based on evidence. This again shows the media’s ability to use pathos as a rhetoric strategy to keep the audience engaged and emotionally invested to continue reading, not only this article, but future articles as well.

Another source is the book Dear People: Remembering Jonestown, edited by Denice Stephenson, which does indicate some troubling practices or rules that were established by Jones. Although a specific author is not listed in this segment, there are indications that these rules may have been audio-recorded or reported by visitors who went to Jonestown.

Jim Jones had specific responses that he wanted his followers to give their families if questioned in regards to the rules. “If they ask what happens if you don’t follow the rules? Say it is a community problem and is handled in our town forum-we have a total democracy: everyone has a voice. We deny them few privileges for few days.”[v]

This mentality of collective issues and isolated living also plays into Roy Wallis’ three types of New Religious Movements typology. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple fit into the World-Rejecting type, which can be clearly seen by some of his practices. According to Wallis, the world-rejecting type believe that the world is corrupt, salvation is collective, and the solution is separating from the world. Although very few leave the nation entirely for a “Promised Land” in another country, Peoples Temple falls right in line with this typology.[vi]

To understand how Peoples Temple became world-rejecting, we can look and see who Jim Jones was and how he led nearly 1,000 people out of the country. Throughout various media outlets, newspapers, websites and books, Jones is described as a charismatic, trustworthy leader. The Letters to the Editor in the November 28, 1978 New York Times included several letters referring to Jones as charismatic and skilled,[vii] and more than 30 years later, one article on this website describes Jones as the “epitome of a charismatic leader.”[viii] Even newspapers from the period quote former Temple members as saying, “I was struck with his charisma, his power, he spoke beautifully; he seemed so benevolent; he talked about equality for all people.”[ix]

Charismatic or not, Jones was reported to have some issues with power and control. Deborah Layton recalls conversations and events during which Jones threatened media outlets and followed those whom he felt were against the Temple, “A couple of people were assigned to follow New West magazine reporter Marshall Kilduff and to go through the reporter’s garbage.”[x]

“But as the days passed,” Layton adds in her book, “Jim’s mood grew worse. He was frantic about the proposed investigations and angry that he had been compelled to run. Having always been in charge of every situation, his inability now to call the shots and manipulate circumstances was wreaking havoc with his sensibilities.”[xi] Ross Case, who was an associate pastor, had reported to the New York Times that Jones “must have had somebody watching and found out who my visitor was by tracking his license. He could do that.”[xii]

With the need for control and charismatic ways, Jones was able to make the transition to an organization that believed in rejecting the world and see it as something negative, which lead to Peoples Temple finding isolation.

In an article in the New York Times on November 21, 1978, reporter Wallace Turner described th “Summary of Human Rights Violations” lodged by the Concerned Relatives against Jim Jones. The Concerned Relatives was an oppositional group created by defectors and family members of Jonestown residents which was the motivating force behind Congressman Leo Ryan’s interest in Peoples Temple.[xiii] The accusation “accused him [Jim Jones] of threatening his followers with physical intimidation, prohibiting visits to Jonestown by relatives and depriving followers of the rights of privacy, free speech and free association.”[xiv] Even Jones’ son was quoted saying “He had one of the biggest egos I ever saw in my life.”[xv]

Charisma and a big ego with a side of a need for power and control seem to have been the perfect mixture for Jones leading Peoples Temple to becoming world-rejecting. But there is more to Jonestown than Jones himself.

The most intriguing aspect to me is that people who met or knew Jim Jones initially reported that he seemed caring and helpful prior to the tragedy, but then would follow those statements with something similar to “I didn’t know he was crazy.” After the tragedy Jones was labeled and seen as a completely different person from years prior. The reason for this is unknown, but is clearly evident throughout the multiple media outlets. Having the drastic change in how people saw Jones really played into pathos and kept people on edge, but it is important to have shown both sides of Jones’ story after the mass suicide as well to keep an objective point of view.

In an article titled “Letters to ‘Dad’: Portrait of a Cult’s Faith and Fear” which ran in the New York Times ten days after the first reports of mass deaths in Jonestown,[xvi] there are multiple letters from young members who showed devotion and willingness to die. The youngest member whose letter was printed that day was only 11 years old. Again we can see the rhetorical strategy using pathos to hook, engage and keep an audience’s attention, and although some can argue that children can be easily molded, these letters show devotion to a belief, not the acts of a monster.

One important thing to keep in mind is that the accounts are possible from credible sources, but there is a lack of identification of who they are. Regardless of the truth or the reason, the media painted a devastating portrait of Jones. Officers who had gone to assist in the after care of the bodies stated, “The children. That’s what makes the difference. We are used to seeing dead adults. But the children.”[xvii]

Children and the elderly are two groups within society that we have the most empathy for, so the media had their own methodical agendas in which they were going to report what they learned. Readers often wonder if there was anything else they could have done to help save these innocent lives, and the media played into that.

According to a New York Times article of December 1, 1978, two lawyers claimed that Deborah Layton, author of Seductive Poison, had warned that Jones “was ‘sick’ and was plotting ‘mass suicide for socialism’.”[xviii] National and even presidential attention was brought to Jonestown especially with the involvement of the custody battle over one of the children living in the jungle.

Another article quotes Tim Stoen, the father of the child involved in the custody battle who was also a defector, saying that when he had left in the summer of 1977, he had witnessed mass suicide rehearsals and had letters written by Jones threatening to follow through with the action.[xix]

Preparation for mass suicide does not equate involuntary actions, nor does it imply Jones infringed on any human rights. So although it may seem evident that the logical assumption would have negative implications, the critical aspect would look more deeply into the motives behind the rehearsals. This strategy which plays into the logical aspect of a scenario is the rhetorical strategy called logos, another one of the most popular strategies used by reporters and authors to convey a message and convince an audience.

It is said that hindsight is always 20/20. So even though defectors left relatives behind, initially they did not fear their relatives were in any danger or harm.[xx] In that last year or so they started to push for the federal government, as well as local law enforcement to get involved. Unfortunately the media was also getting more involved at this same time and was adding pressure to those in Guyana.

Finally things came to a head on November 18, 1978 when Congressman Leo Ryan made a visit to Jonestown to see for himself what the conditions were like. As things would play out, Ryan would be murdered before making it back home along with four other people who had traveled with him. James Cobb, a Peoples Temple defector who accompanied Congressman Ryan to Jonestown, described his emotions during the final moments at the airstrip to a New York Times reporter. Cobb feared for his life and fled the scene, hiding in a tree overnight.[xxi]

Another account published in the New York Times was that of Jonestown resident Odell Rhodes who made a last minute decision not to participate in the death ritual. Rhodes had been a drug addict who kicked the habit by joining Peoples Temple. He said it only took four or five minutes for people who had received their dose of the poison to die, but that panic started to set in when people started going into convulsions. Rhodes went on to say that the children were not crying.[xxii]

Both accounts are graphic, sad, and hard to imagine, but neither account implies a forced suicide. Those shooters at the airstrip had a choice to get on the plane and flee to the United States if they were looking for an escape, instead of carrying out a murderous attack. Those who were murdered at the airstrip and the children were truly innocent victims on different levels.

Through various media outlets, websites, newspaper articles, and books, we are able to piece together the different aspects that make up the Jonestown tragedy. Yet very few sources look at the accessible information from those who believed in and followed Peoples Temple to the very end. One great source are the detailed letters from Carolyn Moore Layton, who has been described as the most powerful woman in Peoples Temple, as well as letters from her sister Ann Moore to and from their relatives. Their correspondence reflects the mentality of those who believed in and followed Jim Jones’ movement.

Despite the majority of articles published in the New York Times lacking credibly, evidence or relevant sources, those were the daily images published of Jonestown. The New York Times made sure to play into the emotional and logical aspects and made something that took place thousands of miles away in another country relevant to society here in the United States. They turned a religious movement with a positive cause into a dangerous cult led by an egotistical lunatic who had lost his mind and brainwashed his followers.

There is truth in the saying “don’t believe everything you see,” because everything should be viewed through a critical lens. Although the final details may never come to light, make sure insight given comes with a holistic approach so bias doesn’t sway the publication in one way or another.


[i] Ledbetter, Les. “Anguished Mother Tells How Fear Controlled Cult,” New York Times, November 21, 1978. A16.

[ii] Ledbetter, Les. “Neighbors in California Say Cult Members Were Helpful,” New York Times, November 24, 1978. A16.

[iii] Layton, Deborah. Seductive Poison A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, INC, 1998), 97-98.

[iv] Nordheimer, Jon. “I Never Once Thought He Was Crazy,” New York Times, November 27, 1978. A12.

[v] Stephenson, Denice. Dear People Remembering Jonestown (San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2005), 86.

[vi] Roy Wallis 2011 Revised Handout.

[vii] Various. “Jonestown and the ‘Ravages of Brainwashing’,” New York Times, November 28, 1978. A22.

[viii] Leadership Styles: Martin Luther King vs. Jim Jones, January 24, 2009, accessed November 13, 2011.

[ix] Layton, 97-98.

[x] Layton, 97.

[xi] Layton, 126.

[xii] Various.

[xiii] Wooden, Ken, The Children of Jonestown (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), 210-220.

[xiv] Turner, Wallace. “Little Attention Paid to Warnings by Sect’s Leader,” New York Times, November 21, 1978. A16.

[xv] Nordheimer, Jon. “Son Depicts Leader of Cult As a Fanatic and Paranoid,” New York Times, November 22, 1978. A1.

[xvi] Winfrey, Carey. “Letters to ‘Dad’: Portrait Of Cult’s Faith and Fear,” New York Times, November 29, 1978. A1.

[xvii] Winfrey, Carey. “2 Officers Describe Horror of Guyana Death Scene,” New York Times, November 25, 1978. A9.

[xviii] Lindsey, Robert. “State Dept. Called Lax On Mass Deaths,” New York Times, December 1, 1978. A1.

[xix] Turner, Wallace. “Little Attention Paid to Warnings by Sect’s Leader.”

[xx] Moore, Rebecca. Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, INC, 2009), 58.

[xxi] Turner, Wallace. “A Survivor Who Hid In a Treetop All Night Tells of the Shootings,” New York Times, November 22, 1978. A10.

[xxii] “Witness Tells How Cult Members Went to Deaths,” New York Times, November 25, 1978. A8.