The Jonestown Massacre and Its Effect on Media Coverage of Future National Tragedies

by Carter Haskins

(Author’s note: This historical investigation has given me insight into the way professional and amateur historians carry out investigations and analysis of historical events/topics. I learned to read books, online articles, primary sources, and online databases in order to obtain the most accurate information possible and to get multiple points of view on a specific event. As I conducted my investigation, I noticed a few limitations of these methods. All sources, primary or professional, have limitations. Most all points of view have bias whether its clear or not, and a true account of a historical event is hard to come by, due to the fact that all of history is told by the prevailing party.

(Reliability of a source can be determined by the author/contributor and the time in which the source was published. The wide variety of sources their respective authors and time periods makes it extremely hard to capture a true, unbiased, completely acceptable look on a historical event.

(In conclusion, this investigation taught me a lot about the methods historians use to analyze different sources and the validity of all kinds of sources. I did my best to provide an unbiased look at how the Jonestown massacre’s media coverage affected the public view and media coverage of future national tragedies using these new skills. This investigation has taught me to understand more about historian’s methods for gathering information and evaluating sources.)

(This paper was written for IB History SL class, at Sunset High School in Beaverton, Oregon in December 2018.)

IA Part A: Identification and Evaluation of Sources

This paper will investigate the following question: To what extent did the media coverage of the Jonestown massacre affect the American public view of Peoples Temple and future national tragedies? I am analyzing the state of America in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and public reaction to the Jonestown massacre the following days, weeks, and months after November 18th, 1978.

The first source I will analyze is Phil LaMonica’s “Leading to the Final Question.” I chose to analyze this source because it was a very helpful source of information that gave good insight to the public reaction to the Jonestown tragedy. This opinion piece was written in 2007 by Phil LaMonica. A limitation of the time period this source was written in is that the Jonestown massacre took place 29 years earlier. Phil LaMonica could have some missing information about this event due to how long ago it was. It was written to analyze what happened in Jonestown and why, and whether or not something similar will ever happen again. A few values of this source for my purposes were that the author was alive for the Jonestown massacre and experienced the public’s immediate reaction, and that the author has other writings about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. A limitation of this source is that it is only one point of view of the public reaction to the Jonestown massacre. Overall, I would say Phil LaMonica’s analysis of the causes of the Jonestown massacre were solid and his insights were valuable to my essay.

The second source I will be analyzing is Whit Denton’s “The Culture of Jim Jones: An Analysis of Reactions to the Jonestown Tragedy.” I chose to evaluate this source because it was quite literally an analysis of reactions to the Jonestown tragedy, and this was one of the main parts of my research question. This paper was written by Whit Denton in 2018, 40 years after the Jonestown massacre. This time gap allows for more time for professionals and survivors of the tragedy to reflect and reconsider the event. The purpose of this writing was to analyze the reactions to the Jonestown tragedy, as is stated in the title. A value of this source is the amount of insight it gives with the amount of sources the author has cited. A limitation of this source is that the author most likely wasn’t alive when this event occurred, based on the information given in editor’s notes. Denton would not have personal observations of public reaction to the Jonestown tragedy, and would have to base their analysis solely off of others’ analysis.

IA Part B: Investigation

The Jonestown massacre was the largest non-natural death toll in United States history until September 11th, 2001, and the greatest loss of life in a single day since World War II (Harrison, “Jonestown Victims Died of Murder”). When people speak of great tragedies in the history of the United States, December 7th, 1941 and September 11th, 2001 are usually the most common dates discussed. Not often is the Jonestown massacre brought up in these conversations, regardless of the monumental impact that this event had on the public view of future religious groups and tragedies, and how the media covers events in the news.

The Development of Peoples Temple and its Massive Following

Jim Jones was an extremely powerful and influential figure throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Jones founded Peoples Temple, a religious community in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1955. Peoples Temple quickly gained recognition for being so accepting of all races, especially during a time when racial tensions in America were high. Jim and his wife, Marceline Jones became the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child in 1961. At this time, this was something no one had ever seen before (Valiente, et al. “40 years after the Jonestown massacre: Jim Jones’ surviving sons on what they think of their father, Peoples Temple today”). As stated by Rebecca Moore, “Both white and black congregants were drawn into the orbit of a man who promised to integrate the most segregated hours of the week—Sunday morning—and to do so in a manner that promoted other forms of political work and challenges beyond integration,” (Moore, Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, 58). Eventually, at the end of Peoples Temple, 71% of the residents of Jonestown were black, with a black female near majority of 49% (Moore 58). An astounding number of people were originally attracted to Peoples Temple due to Jim Jones’ overwhelming acceptance and motivation to unite all kinds of people.

In the 1970’s, Americans were lacking trust in their government and needed something to depend on. The government was focused on improving the lives of minorities during the 1970’s, and their efforts revealed their racial and class resentments. Big government’s resentments led to programs that favored nonwhites, and these programs “further undermined public confidence in big government,” (Baughman, “Backlash Against Big Government”). Jim Jones seemed to share this distrust with many Americans. Peoples Temple was a place where all kinds of peoples could come and coexist in a time when even the government seemed to have a racial bias. Members found Peoples Temple as an escape from reality, where you could find support from other members, regardless of your race. A survey taken in 1975 found that 69% of respondents felt that “over the last ten years this country’s leaders have consistently lied to the people,” (Baughman, “Exhaustion, Cynicism, and Apathy”). To the members of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones came as an alternative leader that wouldn’t lie to them.

Peoples Temple made two significant location changes throughout its existence. These changes in location caused the popularity of Peoples Temple to expand dramatically over a relatively short period of time. In 1967, Jim Jones feared “imminent nuclear destruction” and decided to move Peoples Temple to San Francisco, California. Jones read in Esquire magazine that California was one of the best “Nine Places in the World to Hide” (Chidester, Encyclopedia of Religion, 4953). Ironically, San Francisco is where Peoples Temple found most of its popularity and following. During the early 70’s, Peoples Temple multiplied rapidly with a solid base of about 150 members in Indianapolis and branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco (Chidester 4953). Americans were lost at this time, with little trust in their government and high racial tensions in church and everyday life. Peoples Temple expanded and came to these people, providing them with support and an organization they could trust. In the late 70’s, journalists Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy were planning to publish an exposé on Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Jones decided to roll out what he called “Operation Exodus.” By September of 1977, Jones had moved more than 1,000 members of Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana, South America (Chidester 4953). Jones anticipated the publication of this information, and didn’t want members to fully understand his intentions and actions. Moving 1,000 plus members of his church to South America gave Jones complete power over this massive group of people.

The Jonestown Massacre and its Immediate Press Coverage and Long Term Effect

On November 17th, 1978, Leo Ryan along with a group of reporters and Concerned Relatives visited Jonestown in Guyana, South America. They were met with performances and a community of happy Peoples Temple members. However, that night, one member of Ryan’s crew was slipped a note from a Temple member saying they wanted to leave. The next day, on November 18th, 1978, Ryan presented Jim Jones with the note he had received the night before. Jones claimed that these members were liars and that they just wanted to destroy Jonestown. When Ryan and his crew left Jonestown, they brought two families and two others with them. This unexpected larger group required a second plane, so Ryan requested one. While waiting at the airstrip, Ryan, his crew and the defectors were ambushed by the Temple’s security squad. Five, including Leo Ryan were murdered and 11 were injured. Back in Jonestown, Jim Jones gathered every member of Peoples Temple and instructed them to drink from a large metal tub filled with grape Flavor Aid poisoned with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide and Phenergan. Jones told members they were committing ‘revolutionary suicide’ in protest of an inhumane world. Over 900 people took their own lives, including Jim Jones himself (Valiente, et al. 40 years after the Jonestown massacre: Jim Jones’ surviving sons on what they think of their father, Peoples Temple today).

The immediate news coverage of the tragedy at Jonestown was extremely biased and placed all blame on Jim Jones. Words and phrases with negative connotations were almost exclusively used in headlines and articles. In the days, weeks, and months following the tragedy on November 18th, 1978, many media outlets rushed to give the public as much information as possible. The media painted Jonestown and Peoples Temple as a cult-like prison camp where Jones was constantly abusive. “In 12 of the 20 articles analyzed, the word ‘Cult’ appeared in the headlines,” (Kern, “Media Analysis: Jonestown”). Media outlets used repetition of words such as ‘suicide,’ ‘murdered,’ ‘cult,’ ‘escape,’ ‘trapped,’ and ‘assassination’ to get an emotional reaction from the reader, and to affirm their opinion of Jim Jones as a delusional leader (Kern, “Media Analysis: Jonestown”). The media clearly had one biased opinion of Jim Jones, and this bias skewed the opinions of all Americans who simply wanted to know what had happened.

The Jonestown massacre was an event that no one saw coming. The immediate public response to the massacre was pretty diverse, however the media had a lot of control over public opinion. LaMonica recounts the reactions to hearing of the massacre, “At different times in the next days, weeks and months, we each realized that we were witnessing one of the biggest, most tragic and least understood news stories of the 20th century. Even as the facts began to emerge, to separate themselves from fiction… the horror of Jonestown became all too clear, all too real,” (LaMonica, “Leading to the Final Question”). As it does for any major tragedy, it took Americans a while to truly comprehend what had happened. On top of the shock of this news, the media’s biased opinions counteracted whatever opinions people had formed on their own. Blame was wholly placed on Jim Jones, and according to Rebecca Moore, “If the Jonestown suicides had occurred in 1968 rather than 1978, the public would have reacted differently. People might have recognized commitment, loyalty, and dedication… But by the late 1970’s popular acceptance of personal commitment and political involvement had passed away” (Moore, In Defense of Peoples Temple And Other Essays, 172). Moore is suggesting that the Jonestown massacre was just a confirmation of many Americans beliefs at the time regarding the state of their country.

Public response to the Jonestown tragedy had an astounding impact on the media coverage and public response to future national tragedies. “I think about the Oklahoma City bombing [and] the attack on the Twin Towers. Those are events where there was a great loss of life, and the public response was sympathy to the victims. But with Jonestown, the public response was distancing or outrage, even blame. It was anything but sympathetic,” (Fondakowski, Stories From Jonestown, 24). When Americans heard about the tragedy in Guyana, immediate responses were to blame either the victims themselves, or Jim Jones. Headlines used words to stimulate negative reactions. The way the public sees Jim Jones, as a villainous abusive leader, hasn’t changed since 1978 (Denton, “The Culture of Jim Jones: An Analysis of Reactions to the Jonestown Tragedy”). Regardless of national events/tragedies since 1978, the public still sees Jim Jones as the villainous orchestrator of this mass suicide, and there is still little sympathy for the victims.

When the media rushed to inform the public of the Jonestown massacre in November of 1978, little thought was given to the way the event would be portrayed. All they knew at the time was that Jim Jones was at fault, and that Peoples Temple was a dangerous cult. Public opinion was heavily skewed by the media’s biased views of the event. Ever since November 18th, 1978, national tragedies have been viewed in a different light, however the way the media portrayed the Jonestown massacre had a prominent lasting effect on everyone’s view of Jim Jones and the massacre.

Works Cited

Baughman, Judith. “The 1970s: Government and Politics: Overview.” American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 8: 1970-1979, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

Chidester, David. “Jonestown and Peoples Temple.” Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 4952-4956. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

Valiente, Alexa, et al. “40 Years after the Jonestown Massacre: Jim Jones’ Surviving Sons on What They Think of Their Father, the Peoples Temple Today.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 28 Sept. 2018.

Denton, Whit. “The Culture of Jim Jones: An Analysis of Reactions to the Jonestown Tragedy.”

Fondakowski, Leigh. Stories from Jonestown. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Harrison, Jakob. “Jonestown Victims Died of Murder.”

Kern, Lina. ”Media Analysis: Jonestown.”

Originally posted on October 7th, 2019.

Skip to main content