(Gary Maynard is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and a frequent contributor to this site. His collected articles are here. He can be reached at Gary-Maynard@utc.edu.)
Developed by communications professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross in the late 1970s, cultivation theory suggests that, “the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television” (Cohen and Weimann, 2000). Cultivation leaves people with a misperception of what is true in our world. Early applications of cultivation theory examined persistent and consistent messages portrayed on television and their impact on the views of the overall public and on individuals who watch large amounts of television. For example, past studies have shown that if television shows consistently portray racial stereotypes, then those most exposed will be likely to subscribe to the stereotypes presented (Shanahan and Morgan, 1999). In this essay, I apply cultivation theory to the predominant portrayals of Peoples Temple to help explain the perspectives of the public about the group and similar groups considered to be “cults.”
For the most part, media accounts from the mainstream press have sought to place Peoples Temple and the events surrounding the mass deaths in Guyana in the frame of the concept of “cults” and “cult-like” behavior. In a previous article, I outlined the negative stereotypes that most of the public has when the word “cult” is mentioned: the general public associates the word “cult” with various negative characteristics like brainwashing, sexual abuse, psychological and financial exploitation and – many times – suicide pacts. The mainstream coverage of Peoples Temple, ostensibly to help the public understand what happened, has worked off these media frames in order to vilify the group. Other media sources, such as the PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, have been more even-handed about the activities of the group and the essence of the group. But even these treatments contain references to the word “cult” and focus on the more sinister aspects of the group due to the need in the media to focus on sensational and dramatic tension and footage with a special emphasis on violence and death. In the media, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is a truism in both print and television. It sells too, and major media companies know this simple fact and push it to the limit.
What is the impact of the predominantly negative focus on the media when it comes to groups like Peoples Temple? In a word, it is “distortion,” a distortion of the truth and a simplistic set of conclusions based on selected facts without considering alternative perspectives on the workings of Peoples Temple outside the bizarreness and harmful influence of Jim Jones. While the less sensational stories of the individual members of the group and the positive workings of the group are drowned out by the need to fit the story of the group into the sinister cult media frame.
Two main impacts result from the distortion. first, the public holds a somewhat simplistic and negative view of Peoples Temple filled with many unsubstantiated stereotypes and misconceptions. Second, the public then uses these negative frames to attempt to categorize other new religious movements and sects, like the Mormons, the Church of Christ Science, Scientology and others, with little if any concrete evidence, as cults which plan sinister acts for their members and the community at large.
The Branch Davidian group, for example, was labeled a Jonestown-like group and a cult. Newspaper stories from the Waco Tribune Herald (1995) referred to David Koresh, the group’s leader, as the “Sinful Messiah.” By placing the group in the cult frame over and again during its 50-day standoff with federal law enforcement agencies, over 90% of the public believed the group was a dangerous cult (Wright, ed., 1995). The standoff ended in the fiery deaths of more than 80 members of the group, including children, and the public unquestioningly accepted the theory that the group had committed mass suicide. Evidence that has come out since that the group may not have started the fire, but this alternate view gets no play in the mainstream media due to the effects of cultivation on the group by the mainstream media and the lack of desire on the public to investigate the issue in more detail (Reavis, 1998; Waco: Rules of Engagement, 1997).
Examples of the media engaging in quick judgmental frames that lead to cultivating negative attitudes of the public towards new religious movements and little-known sects damage the public’s understanding of these groups and make conflict between institutional forces and the religious groups more likely and more dangerous. Without a more balanced media frame concerning small and “odd” religious groups, the freedom of religion in this nation will only apply to mainstream religious groups and lead to continued stereotyping and vilification in perpetuity. Other than profit – or rather, the loss of profit – there is little that will force the media to change its stance regarding coverage of new religious movement and sects.
The question then rises: what will change it? Perhaps the only effective way will be for those involved with these groups to provide more oral history studies and other documentary work from their perspective for the media to use as resources, and when those efforts fail, for those same people to call out the media on their slanted coverage and overly simplistic analysis.
Gifford, D., & Gazecki, W. Michael McNulty, producers (1997). Waco: The Rules of Engagement.
Reavis, D. J. (1998). The ashes of Waco: An investigation. Syracuse University Press.
Shanahan, J., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its viewers: Cultivation theory and research. Cambridge University Press.
Wright, S. A. (Ed.) (1995). Armageddon in Waco: Critical perspectives on the Branch Davidian conflict. University of Chicago Press.