Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Tips for journalists on overcoming false balance, rejecting hate material, and making sense of moral panics


As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).

Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.

The problem of false balance

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

False equivalence in the media — giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial — is not unusual. … There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal. Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.

Ultimately, forcing balance where there is none is not journalistically ethical. It’s not part of the proud and essential tradition of truth telling and evaluation, either. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility.

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The distorting reality of ‘false balance’ in the media,” The Washington Post

According to The Economist:

Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on.

— “The balance trap,” The Economist

Maragaret Sullivan, Public Editor at The New York Times, writes:

Hardly anything sends Times readers for their boxing gloves as quickly as does the practice of “he said/she said” reporting. (Here’s an extreme and made-up example just for the sake of illustration: “Some sources believe that the earth is flat; others insist that it is round.”) … In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth[.]

— Margaret Sullivan, “Another Outbreak of ‘False Balance’?” The New York Times

Ms. Sullivan also writes:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan[.] … The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”

Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects. The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.

— Margaret Sullivan, “He Said, She Said, and the Truth,” The New York Times

In endorsing a policy adopted by National Public Radio, James Fallows writes:

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

— James Fallows, “NPR Tackles ‘False Equivalence,'” The Atlantic

False balance in reporting on minorities

False balance can occur when journalists don’t distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, or between scholarly research and popular prejudice. They fail to locate the “established truth.”

This can be a problem in stories concerning religious and ethnic minorities, about whom many popular prejudices exist. Reporters are not immune to such prejudices, so it sometimes takes a little extra effort to be fair on these subjects. If you harbor a particular bias (even unconsciously), then it’s easy to write a story which reflects “confirmation bias.” At its simplest, this means you uncritically accept questionable information because the source confirms your ingrained prejudices about people who are different from you, or about groups in conflict.

In many Western nations, one finds a dominant race, religion, belief system and lifestyle — but also one or more minorities of different race, religion, belief system and lifestyle. Most reporters and editors want to be fair when covering such minorities; but there are clearly hurdles to overcome, including the inherent sense that one’s own peer group is simply “right” or “superior.”

When covering a story which may involve identity politics (or “identity religion”), journalists need to rise above their own innate prejudices. They also need to be aware of what constitutes neutral language on a particular subject, and what terms are viewed as hateful slurs or offensive stereotypes. Avoiding such slurs and stereotypes when covering minorities is an aspect of practicing good journalism. It’s also an aspect of practicing social compassion.

It may be imprudent to write an article about religion based on the tacit assumptions of the average general assignment reporter who bellies up to the bar. Some special insight and sensitivity is needed. Yet, the religion beat is hated by many; this was even a sub-plot in a Lou Grant episode titled “Sect,” where the last resort method of getting rid of an unwanted reporter was to make him the new religion editor, causing him to quit in a huff. (See Mark Silk, Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America.)

In most Western nations where there is some degree of ethnic and religious diversity, there are also nativist movements or hate groups which seek to redefine minorities negatively, and to foment fear and prejudice. It’s especially easy to depict smaller, lesser-known groups in a hateful manner, because most people are unsure of the facts and can’t be bothered doing high quality research.

Neither can general assignment reporters on deadline, so in some cases reporters simply dredge up hate material found on the Net, and treat it like gospel. There’s also the problem of “cloaked hate.” Matthew Johnson of MediaSmarts writes:

Consciously or unconsciously, hate groups draw on a number of basic psychological mechanisms to attract and indoctrinate believers. … [I]t’s important to teach [young people] to recognize the elements that distinguish ideologies of hate from legitimate discourse: the characterization of one or more groups as “the Other,” [and] a narrative of victimhood[.]

“The Other,” which is dehumanized and portrayed as being simultaneously inferior and threatening, is at the heart of all messages of hate. These groups justify their hatred by portraying themselves as being victimized by the Other; the ultimate example of this is often the accusation that the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past.

While most hate sites are simple screeds, the more sophisticated ones mimic popular commercial websites with many offering audiovisual material and discussion forums and featuring professional-looking design and graphics.

Perhaps most pernicious are the sites delivering what scholars call cloaked hate: these sites, which present themselves as being neutral and educational, communicate a subtle message of hate where their true nature only gradually becomes apparent. To achieve this, cloak sites put on as many of the trappings of legitimacy as possible[.]

As well as teaching young people to recognize the characteristics of an ideology of hate, we can also teach them to recognize and decode the various persuasive techniques hate groups use, such as employing misinformation, denialism and pseudo-science[.]

Besides teaching young people critical thinking skills, we can also fight online hate by helping them to develop empathy[.]

— Matthew Johnson, “Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet”

In connection with this “we are victims” mentality, hate groups may circulate fictional narratives portraying their targets as abusers. In this way, they try to convert passive readers into active stakeholders in a narrative of hate. Elissa Lee and Laura Leets write:

[According to William Pierce,] “Fiction or drama gets much more inside the head of the person who is experiencing it because the reader or viewer identifies with a character.” … Pierce’s enthusiasm for fiction displays how hate groups have begun to use narratives to influence others and to promote their vision. … The power of storytelling lies in its ability to make an argument without eliciting mental resistance. Empirical studies have supported this claim with findings that narratives elicit fewer counterarguments and less resistance to persuasion. Narratives, especially fictional stories, may raise less scrutiny and suspicion through suspension of disbelief and identification with the protagonist’s mental perspective.

— Elissa Lee and Laura Leets, “Persuasive Storytelling by Hate Groups Online”

The existence of hate material taking the form of fictional narratives suggests that we should heed Katrina vanden Heuvel’s caution against “presenting fiction on par with fact.” We may also need to develop empathy as a shield against hate.

There are organizations which seek to “educate” the public that minority religions are to be hated, feared, discriminated against, and generally treated like lepers. Journalists sometimes uncritically accept and reproduce this type of material because it resonates with their own beliefs, or because they fail to identify the genre and investigate the source. In short, journalists are sometimes taken in by people who claim to be “cult experts,” but are not regarded as such by bona fide scholars of religion.

As publications have grown increasingly wary of atrocity stories circulated by anti-cult groups, such groups have turned to third party technique to drive home their message. Particularly where claims are potentially libelous, journalists need to drill down to ensure that sources are credible — not engaged in astroturfing or merely repeating what they’ve heard.

Suppose you locate Internet material claiming that some minority spiritual figure is a “criminal.” Well, in what jurisdiction was the criminal complaint filed, and what was its outcome? If someone is portrayed on the Internet as committing crimes left and right, but in the real world there’s not a single police complaint, then clearly the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. A person may be portrayed hatefully on the Internet, but articles in local newspapers may establish him or her to be a jewel in the community, through the recitation of facts not rhetoric.

Reliable sources

How can journalists locate reliable sources on the subject of minority religions? It helps to recognize that scholars of religion have devoted entire careers to the study of minority religions, and have also developed finely honed instincts for separating truth from fiction. They’re not infallible, but do have a leg up on general assignment reporters.

A college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions is a good resource for journalists and editors wanting to provide fairer coverage. Fisher emphasizes “the personal consciousness of believers” and includes many “teaching stories” drawn from different traditions.

A key point in the study of comparative religion is that one doesn’t need to be religious in order develop some basic understanding of religion, and to treat both majority and minority adherents with respect and tolerance.

With regard to small groups about which the reporter has no prior knowledge, bona fide print encyclopedias (such as encyclopedias of religion) can be of help. However, online encyclopedias written by anonymous users are often unreliable because the writers may lack expert knowledge, may be subject to the same prejudices as the general public, and may mistakenly include hate material under the guise of “balance.”

If surveying articles in newspapers and periodicals, it’s necessary to distinguish between those with a reputation for fairness, accuracy, and unbiased coverage, and those who indulge in tabloid-style or “yellow” journalism (where the whole point is to appeal to popular prejudice).

Even in reputable papers, it’s helpful to differentiate between fact-based articles and opinion pieces. Some Internet-only publications don’t have clearly labeled editorial sections. If an article seems slanted, and the author has few journalism creds, it may not represent “established truth” — particularly if it reads like a hateful screed, and uses loaded language or terms generally considered to be slurs.

Some journalists blindly trust social media sites without recognizing that such sites are often cesspools of false and hateful depictions of religious and ethnic minorities. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (i.e. hoaxes or fake news) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with.

U.S. Internet law is especially lax, with the result that it’s almost impossible to prevent people from circulating hate material which has no basis in fact, such as claims that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. (See also Caitlin Dewey’s final column in the series “What was fake on the Internet this week.”)

Hate material attacking spiritual minorities may consist of apostate “testimonials.” Such material is problematic for a number of reasons, and should not be overly weighted, especially where it contradicts known facts established by scholars of religion. (See the sidebar on apostate accounts at the bottom of this article.)

Modern challenges and best practices

In many Westerns nations, the mainstream is increasingly moving toward a secular lifestyle based on science, commerce, and sensual pleasure. In one sense this is reasonable; but it also makes covering spiritual minorities especially challenging for reporters. The challenge is not to “otherize” spiritual groups simply because of their different beliefs and lifestyle, or different emphasis. The secular media space may be our home turf or preferred flavour, but we should also recognize the existence of sacred spaces which confer benefits not found in the mainstream.

To offer an analogy: If you’re visiting a Thai restuarant, you don’t expect it to be like McDonald’s, and wouldn’t keep criticizing it on the basis that it doesn’t have Big Macs or hasn’t served 99 billion. One helpful way of covering spiritual minorities is to view them as sub-communities within the larger communities where they reside. They are part of America, and do not lie outside her borders.

A diverse society consists of more than one community. These different communities may live by different truths or normative values. A group of surfers in Laguna Beach might live quite differently from a group of Amish farmers in Lancaster. In rooting out false balance, we need to beware of applying the majority’s idea of “established truth” to minority communities. This can lead to shockingly bad examples of identity politics, e.g.: “I’m an urban atheist, so naturally I hate rural religious communities and have to treat them as simply bad and wrong.”

Some higher level established truths trump lower level ones. Among many people of good will and broad perspective, the higher level truth about spiritual and ethnic minorities is that they should be treated with respect, and understood within the context of their own beliefs, communities, and daily lives. This means rejecting hate material which seeks to vilify them.

Most spiritual groups combine beliefs, practices, lifestyle, culture, and philosophy in an integral way. Together, these things comprise a particular approach to the truth. While each group is different, through the study of comparative religion we can discover common elements and shared experiences which lead to a universal understanding of religion. But if our only motive is to discredit spiritual groups, this will act as a heavy-handed filter of information and an impediment to understanding.

There are many journalists and scholars who approach minority faith groups with empathy, tolerance, and a non-judgmental interest in learning what they believe and practice. Such researchers aren’t obsessed with proving that their own (possibly secular) beliefs are superior. They inherently recognize that diversity is an aspect of religious freedom, that different people might have different spiritual needs, and that there is no single, foolproof way to be happy. Thus, in a survey like Living Religions, different religious beliefs and customs are examined within their own context, not pitted against secular beliefs; nor are minority adherents flayed for differing from the majority.

Best practices for reporters are to treat minority religions with respect and tolerance, to be aware that hate groups may circulate inaccurate material, and to look to high quality sources in order to apprehend the “established truth” about a particular teacher or group. That truth is established through scholarly research, not popular prejudice.

Recognizing and overcoming bias

One solution to biased or nonsensical coverage of religion is greater respect for indigenous voices, with fewer “cult experts” hogging the mic. Editors need to learn to differentiate between indigenous voices and interposed opinions, and to strive to present indigenous voices with integrity. This is difficult when the anti-cult movement — often represented by apostates — is barking at the door, saying: “Let me in! Let me in! Publish my opinions about this or that religious movement.”

Of course, society’s process of consensus-building can benefit from hearing many opinions; but when interposed opinions or secondary constructions greatly outnumber indigenous voices — when the noise overpowers the underlying signal — it becomes difficult to reach honest conclusions. The sacred space is lost somewhere in the 24-hour news cycle.

Most editors want to be unbiased, but they can only avoid bias if they’re conscious of it. Editors who rarely deal with the subject of minority religions may not recognize stereotypes when they’re fed them, and might benefit from having a spotlight shone.

Religious vilification material may begin by reciting a list of groups which have received negative publicity, describing them in the starkest emotional terms; then proceed to finger some benign group as being merely a variation on those already mentioned. This technique should be familiar to editors who’ve encountered racist material. If someone mentions Willie Horton, O.J. Simpson, and Barack Obama in the same breath, and tries to portray them as variations on a single entity, this is obviously racist stereotyping. Similarly, the claim that “all cults and cult leaders are alike” — while a central tenet of anti-cult polemics — is utterly rejected by scholars of religion. Sociologist Dr. Joseph E. Davis writes:

Lumping disparate groups together serves the purpose of creating the specter of conspiracy and of a stereotypical enemy. All of these elements — organized opposition, brainwashing theories, atrocity stories, calls for governmental action, combining of unrelated groups with an overarching xenophobia and religious bigotry — are a part of the anti-cult movement that appeared in the 1970s … Furthermore, with the establishment of formal anti-cult organizations, publishing enterprises, and educational programs, … the anti-cult movement now has a considerable stake in keeping the cult scare alive.

Dr. Eileen Barker, a sociologist with the London School of Economics, writes that anti-cultists typically portray groups they oppose as “brainwashing, exploitative, potentially violent cults under the control of a ruthless, pathologically unstable leadership whose real purpose is not religious or spiritual, but [rather] financial gain, sexual perversion and/or political and personal power.” Where editors encounter minor variations on this stereotype, they should not consider it newsworthy. Such material may be customized to fit a particular teacher and faith, but is nonetheless a familiar type of genre writing which is deprecated by scholars.

There is a meaningful, substantive test which editors can perform when evaluating submissions which seek to demonize a religion or spiritual figure. First, consider that demonization is rarely helpful or ethical. Second, check with religious scholars, or with scholarly resources such as bona fide encyclopedias of religion. Where there’s a pronounced cognitive dissonance between the known teachings, practices and reputation of the group or figure in question and the negative material being pitched, this should raise concerns about cult-baiting, if not libel.

Editors have a duty to reject the bogus and stick up for the factually accurate and intellectually honest. A submitter may have a Master’s Degree in comparative folk-dancing and a publicist ready to tout her as a “cult expert,” but when the underlying product is religious intolerance, the best policy for editors is caveat emptor.

Religion is often treated like politics

Many reporters cut their eye teeth covering politics, and on the rare occasions when they do a story about religion or spirituality, they treat it like politics: with “a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline.” At the populist level, religion and politics are sometimes intertwined in American life, so there may be things we can learn from politics which also apply to religion.

John F. Kennedy was a naval hero during World War II, and was also seen as a hero for his extraordinary brinksmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which could have led to a nuclear holocaust. Yet, in Dallas on the day of his assassination, handbills were circulated with JFK’s picture and the headline “WANTED FOR TREASON,” with a list of his alleged “treasonous activities.” So mimicking Margaret Sullivan’s example of false balance, we might formulate: “Some sources believe that JFK was wanted for treason; others insist he was a hero in war and peace.” Moving on…

Concerning Sen. John McCain and the 2000 presidential campaign, Jennifer Steinhauer writes:

People in some areas of South Carolina began to receive phone calls in which self-described pollsters would ask, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

It was a reference to Bridget, who was adopted as a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh and is darker skinned than the rest of the McCain family. Richard Hand, a professor at Bob Jones University, sent an e-mail message to “fellow South Carolinians” telling recipients that Mr. McCain had “chosen to sire children without marriage.”

Literature began to pepper the windshields of cars at political events suggesting that Mr. McCain had committed treason while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that he was mentally unstable after years in a P.O.W. camp, that he was the homosexual candidate and that Mrs. McCain, who had admitted to abusing prescription drugs years earlier, was an addict.

— Jennifer Steinhauer, “Confronting Ghosts of 2000 in South Carolina,” The New York Times

So again following Margaret Sullivan’s example, we might formulate: “Some sources believe that John McCain committed treason and fathered an illegitimate black child; others insist he was a hero during the Vietnam War, and a U.S. Senator from Arizona.”

Public figures are often victims of false slurs. Any such figure can be portrayed hatefully by cherry-picking the worst of what critics have said about him, even if it’s slanderous. Moreover, certain types of defamatory depictions have the effect of poisoning any reasonable discussion about the actual record of a public figure, or about the actual teachings and accomplishments of a spiritual figure.

The practice of creating false balance by giving equal weight to disreputable sources yields particularly destructive results when some of the claims are of an extreme and libelous nature, tending to overshadow any positive view.

When general assignment reporters on deadline cut-and-paste material from the Internet, they often produce this type of result about minority spiritual figures. “Somebody said he did this, somebody said he did that… We don’t know. [[shrug]] NEXT!” Assembly-line journalism with no sense of responsibility and no truth value.

Regarding the John McCain matter, Richard Gooding adds:

“One of the dilemmas of the campaign,” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz told me, “was whether to denounce some of these sleazier allegations and risk spotlighting them for people who hadn’t heard them in the first place.”

McCain, in his 2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For, wrote (without going into much detail), “There wasn’t a damn thing I could do about the subterranean assaults on my reputation except to act in a way that contradicted their libel.”

— Richard Gooding, “The Trashing of John McCain,” Vanity Fair

John McCain is a fairly popular and powerful U.S. senator; yet he was powerless in the face of these targeted slurs. How much harder is it for minority spiritual figures (who are relatively unknown and powerless) to overcome such slurs?

Many journalists have high ethics, but some fail to consider how publishing slurs (based on false balance) victimizes the targets. Journalists used to covering politics may be desensitized by the frequent dirtiness of politics. When covering a story about a spiritual figure or group, they’re still wearing their brass knucks and coming from a place of deep cynicism. Yet, covering spiritual figures and groups often entails suspending judgement and getting as much factual information as possible about what they teach, believe, and practice. This may include visiting spiritual communities and conducting first person interviews. At a minimum, it means consulting high quality sources like scholars of religion (or articles penned by scholars).

False balance fuels moral panics

To segue into our discussion of moral panics, let’s recall these earlier quotes:

“Too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding ‘balance,’ even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.” — Katrina vanden Heuvel

“A report characterized by false balance is a false report.” — James Fallows

These quotes highlight the problems with our formulations about John McCain and JFK, which were substantially false because they presented fiction on a par with fact, or hate material on a par with fact.

Media reports based on false balance may cause a wider ripple effect in society. The difficulties ensuing from such reports can be analyzed in terms of a moral panic. Here are three passages explaining the latter term.

Charles Krinsky:

A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.

To a great degree, moral panics take place in the media. During moral panics, media coverage, rousing public fears over a reputed social problem, also assists appreciably in constructing that problem.

— Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

Stanley Cohen:

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, a person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to[.] … Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight.

— Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers

Scott A. Bonn:

Moral panics arise when distorted mass media campaigns are used to create fear, reinforce stereotypes and exacerbate pre-existing divisions in the world, often based on race, ethnicity and social class. … [T]here is a focused attention on the behavior, whether real or imagined, of certain individuals or groups that are transformed into what [Stanley] Cohen referred to as “folk devils” by the mass media. This is accomplished when the media strip these folk devils of all favorable characteristics and apply exclusively negative ones.

[T]he media are a particularly powerful set of actors in the creation of a moral panic. Typically, news media coverage of certain events involving alleged folk devils is distorted or exaggerated. News coverage makes the folk devils appear to be much more threatening to society than they really are. Public concern and anxiety are heightened by journalistic hyperbole concerning the folk devils. Public concern and anxiety over the folk devils lead to moral panic.

— Scott A. Bonn, “Moral Panic: Who Benefits From Public Fear?” Psychology Today

In all three passages, media accounts are cited as triggering or spurring moral panics. When this happens, journalists are playing quite the opposite role of that idealized by Margaret Sullivan, who wrote that: “Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.”

In fact, when reports which are a confused hodgepodge of unevaluated claims are published by the media, this leads to a confused, frightened, and angry public. During America’s bitter anti-Catholic period of the mid-nineteenth century, hearsay reports that a mysterious woman was being held against her will in Charlestown’s Ursuline Convent led to an unruly mob burning down the convent. This occurred on August 11, 1834, and the result was probably not far from what staunch anti-Catholics had in mind. This underlines the point that those who seek to foment moral panics by circulating misinformation may have social control objectives, e.g. eliminating a minority religion viewed (by them) as undesirable. (See also Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834, by Nancy Lusignan Schultz.)

The mid-nineteenth century gave birth to a literary genre known as “convent tales,” whose purpose was to incite rabid anti-Catholic sentiment. James R. Lewis writes:

Anti-Catholic literature originated as propagandistic atrocity tales, although authors soon realized they could enrich themselves through royalties while inspiring crusades against an unpopular religious group. This discovery pushed such literature in the direction of violent sensationalism and quasi-pornography. The process went so far that propagandists were sometimes arrested for selling obscene anti-Catholic literature. … “Convent tales” typically consisted of the recounting of one atrocity after another — a litany of evil held together by a thin strand of narrative.

— James R. Lewis, “Fantasies of Abuse and Captivity in Nineteenth Century Convent Tales” (footnotes omitted)

The most famous of these works was The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Modern journalists who cover religion at all should learn at least a little about it, since contemporary moral panics concerning new religious movements are likewise constructed around captivity narratives.

Today, there are propagandists for hire who will readily step in to fill the market niche for convent tales, ashram tales, or what-have-you; so you will get fake memoirs targeting spiritual figures. Personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt. Journalists need to beware of accounts which turn minority figures into “folk devils,” stripping them of all favorable characteristics and applying exclusively negative ones.

Now recall our earlier discussion of hate groups and the extended quote from Matthew Johnson. When hate groups specifically target minority religions, they may circulate fictional narratives which are quite similar to convent tales in that they consist of “the recounting of one atrocity after another — a litany of evil held together by a thin strand of narrative.” The purpose, as discussed, is to justify their hatred by portraying the haters as victims, and the targets as abusers. This is done quite publicly, with the intent of inflaming fear and hatred, and garnering support for social control measures.

In a media-dominated society, it’s not necessary to enact laws curtailing religious freedom; some groups get the same effect when they succeed in lobbying the media to publish material vilifying minority religions and attaching a strong emotional stigma to non-traditional choices — in effect ostracizing and otherizing minority adherents.

Freedom is not an absolute, but is often measured by the steepness of barriers to entry, or how free one feels. (Picture a woman applying for a job in the construction industry.) Moral panics ensuing from slanted media coverage ensure that anyone considering participation in a minority religion is keenly aware that he or she may be portrayed as a “folk devil” and socially ostracized. This raises the barrier to entry quite high. Some people won’t be able to surmount it, despite their sincere spiritual interest. Thus, people are often afraid to follow their conscience in spiritual matters for fear of “what people will say.” These are not ideal conditions of religious freedom.

The reason some Commonwealth nations (such as our next door neighbor Canada) have passed laws against religious vilification is that they rightly perceive such vilification as leading to religious persecution (which historically it has). First come the angry denunciations, then come the townsfolk with flaming brands to burn down the convent, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Even when the results stop short of arson, the hatred is still keenly felt by the human persons who are its targets.

In her “Hate on the Net,” Canadian sociologist Evelyn Kallen takes the position that freedom from vilification is a human right; and in her “Cyber Civil Rights,” American law professor Danielle Keats Citron claims that when “individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups” are subjected to hatred, this causes them “deep psychological harm. … They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks[.]”

The problem, then, when journalists fail to identify hate material as such, and include it along with more reputable material under cover of “balance,” is that such hate material can easily spur a moral panic in which the targets of the hatred are irreparably harmed — if not physically, then emotionally and psychologically. The Society of Professional Journalists lists several pillars of journalism ethics, one of which is to minimize harm.

On use of the word “cult”

Some people view the word “cult” (when used to describe a religious or spiritual minority) as similar to the n-word. It almost always gives offense. Sometimes that offense is intended. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance write:

The term “cult” is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow. It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life. The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America. The word “cult,” particularly as used by the media, carries a heavy emotional content. The term suggests that this is a group that you should detest, avoid, and fear. In reality, the only “crime” of most “cults” is that they hold different religious beliefs from whomever is doing the attacking.

In her opening remarks at a subcommittee hearing on “Religious Discrimination in Western Europe,” Rep. Cynthia McKinney said:

[W]ho has the right to determine for others what is a “cult,” and what is an “acceptable” religion? When the government presumes to do so, it seems that a Pandora’s Box of state interference in religious life has been opened. And furthermore, when the government becomes the arbiter of religious authenticity, which religions are likely to be targeted? Certainly not the established religions that enjoy the support of the majority in a population. Instead, the victims are going to be minority religions, the least well known and most misunderstood faiths, in short, the very groups that agreements like the Helsinki Accords were designed to protect.

Her comments apply not just to government, but also to media.

Many scholars try to avoid using the term “cult,” which once had a non-pejorative technical meaning in religious studies, but in popular parlance has become an obvious slur. Such scholars often use “minority religion,” “minority faith group, “new religious movement,” or “sect” as non-pejorative replacement terms. (But note that in France and other parts of Europe, the term secte carries the same negative connotations as “cult.”)

Due to the proliferation of minority religions in recent decades, the U.S. Army found that its chaplains needed to understand and accommodate a wider variety of faiths than ever before. It therefore contracted with The Institute of American Religion to provide a Handbook for Chaplains which lists the requirements and practices of over fifty major and minor sects. The Handbook includes this “Note About Cults”:

During the 1970s, the term “cult” came into popular use. While having a specific social science reference, as employed in popular discourse, it has come to have an extremely derogatory connotation. It has been used as a label to stigmatize various religious groups, some of which are treated below. Also in terms of its popular usage, there is little agreement over the meaning of the term or specifically what characteristics qualify a particular religious group to be so labeled. It is also the case that in dealing with a problem or a pastoral situation which concerns an individual member of such a group, such terms as cult have little use in reaching an acceptable solution. Hence the term is not used in the Handbook and chaplains are cautioned in its use in their day-to-day professional activities.

The aforementioned Ontario Consultants note that:

In 1998-MAY, the Associated Press decided to avoid the use of the word “cult” because it had acquired a pejorative aura; they have since given preference to the term “sect.”

We recommend that the word “cult” never be used in reports, articles, essays, sermons, etc. without careful definition in advance — and perhaps not even then. The negative associations linked to the word are so intense that its use will automatically lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

Use or non-use of the word “cult” has to some extent become a barometer of the degree of religious tolerance taken on by the speaker, writer, or institution. Those who embrace a world view rooted in religious tolerance and ecumenism tend to avoid using it, as do those who recognize a continuum of beliefs and practices among the various religions, with no clear distinction that makes one a “cult” and another an “acceptable” religion. However, tabloids like Britain’s Daily Mail often run sensationalistic stories about purported “cults.” Such stories quite intentionally demonize minority adherents, portraying them as “folk devils” to boost reader interest.

The “established truth” about a religious or ethnic minority isn’t necessarily what the “man in the street” believes, or what’s dictated by familiar memes or stereotypes. Reducing entire classes of people to memes or stereotypes is poor journalism. If you’re an educated person writing for an intelligent audience, you would do well to avoid terms likely to give offense.

Brainwashing claims

Many once-popular myths have been debunked to such an extent that the public no longer believes in them. The moon is not made of green cheese, but flat-earthers are still represented, at least in the form of college drinking fraternities. (Amusingly, the motto of the Flat Earth Society is “Deprogramming the masses since 1547.”)

At any given point in time, there will be some myths which have been substantially debunked by scholars, but still enjoy a degree of popularity among the general public. Currently, brainwashing is not so much a theory as a meme. It remains a popular meme wherever Person A accepts a set of beliefs which Person B rejects. In Internet flame wars, atheists may claim that Catholics are “brainwashed,” while Catholics may claim that books like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion are “brainwashing” people to believe that science has proven there is no God. Yet both groups clearly have a choice in what to believe.

As noted by Joseph E. Davis (see earlier quote), brainwashing theories purporting to explain religious conversion were one component of the anti-cult movement which emerged in the 1970s. Most scholars of religion today reject such theories; but the notion that your neighbors who attend a different church or temple than you do might be “brainwashed” does add a scary, sci-fi element to anti-cult rhetoric.

The majority of scholars who have studied the brainwashing explanation (sometimes also called “coercive persuasion” or “mind control”) tend to regard it as pseudoscience undergirded by religious bigotry. One of their arguments is that the few experiments with brainwashing done in North Korean P.O.W. camps in the 1950s were largely unsuccessful. The captors had total control over their captives, and subjected them to harsh physical conditions (even torture); yet they produced few if any lasting converts to the cause of communism.

In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.

Many spiritual groups have a trial period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.

In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day. These are all arguments against the brainwashing thesis.

Much more could be said on the subject. See “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1,” where I include an extended quote from John E. LeMoult from an article originally published in the Fordham Law Review. See also “Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory,” by J. Gordon Melton. After recounting the history of brainwashing as a theoretical construct, Dr. Melton ends with this comment:

A new religious world is now being created by a new generation of religious adherents in the post-secular environment emerging as the twentieth century comes to an end. During the last generation, the Western world has made a quantum leap beyond Christendom and the secular society that has replaced it toward the development of a new religious order that includes significant Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu communities joining the older Jewish and Western Esoteric groupings. The future task for cultural leaders is the creation of structures in which these very different religious communities, some large, some small, can live and work with the older Christian Churches and mutually contribute to the welfare of the nations in which they find themselves. In such a context, freeing ourselves from labels such as “brainwashing” and the suspicions it arouses seems a necessary component of arriving at a harmonious future.

Brief general conclusions

An enlightened view of religion is that whilst not everyone is religious or spiritual, those who are contribute much to the beauty, wisdom, and colour of the world we live in, and also have a role to play in finding solutions to society’s problems.

Nevertheless, there’s currently a backlash against the changes of the sixties, which ushered in a whole new era of spiritual freedom and possibilities. Some people want to roll back those changes, so they engage in historical revisionism and slurs against teachers who’ve made a lasting contribution to society. One way this is done is by giving undue weight to apostate accounts which are made up out of whole cloth and don’t jibe with reality. This is especially a problem on the Internet.

Journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities face special challenges, and need to cultivate special skills and insights which aren’t always taught in J-School, or acquired pounding the crime beat or political beat.

While false balance should be avoided generally, it’s particularly harmful when hate material slurring religious minorities is sneaked in under the guise of balance. Reporters need to identify the genre of material they’re dealing with, and to be conversant with negative stereotypes in order to avoid indulging in them. They should be careful not to fuel moral panics by circulating material which portrays minority adherents as “folk devils.”

When covering the activities of religious and ethnic minorities, best practices are to consult high quality sources, to visit minority communities, attend events, and interview participants. After all, you wouldn’t review a restaurant without checking out the food and ambiance, or critique a poem having never read it. Curiosity and openness are your friends here.

Good coverage of minorities entails understanding their beliefs, culture, and lifestyle in their naturally occurring context — that is, within minority communities themselves. When this type of honest journalism is practiced, it often turns out that the minorities in question are nothing like the stereotypes, but are simply fellow human beings.

The message of hate groups is that difference is threatening; difference is abusive; difference is even criminal. The message of advocates for religious tolerance is that most people who are different pose no threat, are not abusive, and are certainly not criminals. Good investigative journalism tends on the whole to confirm the tolerant view.

For a moral person of refined sensibilities, it should not be necessary to teach tolerance by rote, working from a list of “approved” minorities. Rather, we should be able apply principles of respect and tolerance universally, so that even groups too small or too new to be added to the list are still treated with basic human decency.

Sri Chinmoy and The Peace Run: Helpful Resources

One reason I wrote this article is that I noticed uneven coverage of Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run. I want to wrap up by listing some resources which I consider helpful. These sources aren’t meant to replace your own research, but are a practical response to the fact that some reporters on deadline do little research.

The late scholar of religion Bryan R. Wilson famously said that “The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.” Failing such a study, one should at least take some notice of what spiritual groups say about themselves.

In that spirit, one should not overlook,, and There’s also, which holds a huge collection of his writings.

Sri Chinmoy was prolific in a number of fields, so this links page points to specific sites dedicated to his music, poetry, artwork, charitable activities, and athletics. lists numerous races sponsored by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, and lists concert dates and venues. includes a wealth of material about the “early years,” and a section with scholarly articles like Vidagdha Meredith Bennett’s doctoral thesis on the poetry of Sri Chinmoy.

A number of followers who remained faithful to him and studied with him in adult life have written books or articles about their lifetime of experiences with Sri Chinmoy. Some are listed here. I particularly recommend Auspicious Good Fortune by Sumangali Morhall, and At The Feet of My Master by Pradhan Balter, but there are many to choose from. There’s also a recent collection, On Sri Chinmoy’s Sunlit Path, in which nearly one hundred current disciples of Sri Chinmoy discuss their experiences.

Sri Chinmoy emerged from the Hindu tradition of meditation and yoga, and is a recognized name in those fields, so many encyclopedias include articles on him. These often provide reasonably accurate baseline information about his teachings and activities. See:

Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism

Columbia Encyclopedia Columbia Encyclopedia

U.S. Army Handbook for Chaplains

“Sri Chinmoy Community Article”

The latter link is to a “community” article written in an encyclopedic style, from an emic or inside perspective. It’s more detailed than most, and reflects a good balance between biographical facts, significant quotes, and understanding Sri Chinmoy’s “path of the heart” in historical context. The footnotes point to much valuable source material. Disclosure: I was a contributor to the article.

While no third party source is perfect, The New York Times has been covering Sri Chinmoy since 1971, and has often sent reporters to visit Sri Chinmoy Centre (which is headquartered in New York) both before and after his death. Most Times articles reflect that the reporter attended an event, scoped out the activities, and interviewed the people. These articles are generally far superior to those where the writer came nowhere near Sri Chinmoy Centre, and is simply talking out of his or her hat. Times articles include:

“Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” (1971)

“Sri Chinmoy, Athletic Spiritual Leader, Dies at 76” (2007)

“Healer at the Pit Stop” (2014)

“Tranquil Haven for Many Ethnic Groups” (2003)

This last article is about the Jamaica Hills area where Sri Chinmoy lived and the Centre is headquartered. It states that crime is not a problem, and “residents say sect members are good neighbors because they are quiet and law-abiding.”

There are also small community papers covering Queens, New York which have written stories about Sri Chinmoy and the Centre from the point of view of local color. These stories likewise establish that the Centre has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse neighborhood. See:

“Community Board 8 takes step to allow Sri Chinmoy land buy” (TimesLedger, 2010)

“Ultra Marathon is Winner for the Neighborhood” (Queens Free Press, 2015)

“Kids Learn to Help Others at Sri Chinmoy Centre” (Newsday, 2007)

“So Sorry To Lose Sri Chinmoy” (Queens Courier, 2007)

The latter is a personal reminiscence by Victoria Schneps-Yunis, who heads up the Queens Courier. It’s indicative of the good reputation Sri Chinmoy earned in the community where he lived for over 35 years.

Sri Chinmoy Centre also has branches in major cities in the US and throughout the world. Some followers open vegetarian restaurants or cafés, which are popular for their healthy food and spiritual ambience. See:

“Guru inspired harmony, French toast” (Chicago Tribune, 2007)

“Consciousness Blossoms in Palm Harbor serves vegetarian fare with message of peace” (St. Petersburg Times, 2009)

Sri Chinmoy’s teachings emphasize living in harmony with the world and trying to be of service. The Peace Run (a.k.a. World Harmony Run) is one of the projects he founded which makes this a practical reality. Local papers have often sent reporters to cover the run when it was passing through their city or town and stopping to meet with schools and civic organizations.

The resulting articles consistently reflect that the runners are sincere people of good character who share a positive vision that doesn’t conflict with the broad goals of society. When partnering with local schools, runners make use of the World Harmony Curriculum, which stresses non-violent conflict resolution and learning about people from different cultures as a way to foster respect and tolerance. Children write essays on the meaning of peace and hold the Peace Torch. These articles are but a small sampling:

“Running for World Harmony” (Bucks County Courier Times, 2005)

“World Harmony comes to City Hall” (San Diego Downtown News, 2013)

“Peace Run torch relay team makes a stop in Detroit, shares time with children” (, 2014)

“Peace Run torch relay stops in East Chicago” (Northwest Indiana Times, 2014)

For the next generation

Subsequent to Sri Chinmoy’s passing in 2007 at age 76, there have been efforts to discredit him. It would be a great loss and pity if the next generation was unaware of his contributions, due to misinformation or mislabeling. When he first began teaching in 1966 he may have been “self-proclaimed;” but in the ensuing decades he was widely proclaimed by experts in a number of fields, including his peers in the interfaith community. See:

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, Introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy (2000)

Rabbi Marc Gellman, “Are Miracles Real?” (Newsweek, 2007)

This People Magazine piece from 1976 is a marker of sorts. It discusses Sri Chinmoy’s accomplishments to date, and the perception by those who met him that “as far as gurus go, this one’s the genuine article.”

“Sri Chinmoy Writes, Paints and Holds Out Hope of a Path to Paradise”,,20066048,00.html

Here are links to some letters and commendations received by Sri Chinmoy. They help to establish what’s also established in the “community” encyclopedia article linked to earlier: that he presented himself before authorities knowledgeable in matters spiritual, literary, artistic, and philanthropic, and that they accepted his bona fides.

“Tribute to Sri Chinmoy” in the Congressional Record

Letter from Mayor Abraham Beame to Sri Chinmoy

Proclamation by Mayor George R. Moscone

Letter from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Sri Chinmoy

Letter from Sister Nirmala Joshi to Sri Chinmoy

I may update this resource section as time and circumstances permit. There are many excellent articles worth linking to, including those by Dr. Kusumita Pedersen and Dr. A. Walter Dorn.

Thank you so much for reading my blog.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


See also:
Paintings For World Harmony, United Nations 2008 (YouTube) 

6 comments on “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

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