Media Sensationalism and Apostasy:
A Destructive Synergy


apostate n. [Greek apostasia, revolt or secession] 1. one who deliberately abandons one's religion 2. one who publicly renounces and condemns one's former religious beliefs and practices.

The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an 'atrocity story' to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or to remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns.

Bryan Wilson, The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism

Apostates are not representative of ex-members

As many studies show (see, for one, Massimo Introvigne's article), apostates are a minority of the larger population of ex-members of any given religious minority:

Most former members do not become apostates. They remain in sociological terms suggested by David Bromley and others "defectors" (members who somewhat regret having left an organization they still perceive in largely positive terms), or "ordinary leave takers" with mixed feeling about their former affiliation. However ordinary leave takers (and, to some extent, defectors) remain socially invisible, insofar as they do not like or care to discuss their genuine representatives of the former members. In fact, quantitative research shows that even in extremely controversial groups, apostates normally represent less than 15% of former members.

Massimo Introvigne
Religious Liberty in Europe: Apostates

Thus without further investigation, apostates should not be considered as representatives of ex-members in general.

The Lewis and Bromley study became a landmark study in shifting the onus of pathology experienced by former members of new religions from the religions to the coercive activity of the anti-cult movement. In the wake of this study (and other works that confirmed its findings), treating former members as people in need of psychological help has largely ceased. The lack of any widespread expressed need for psychological help by the tens of thousands of former members of new religions in the succeeding decade has itself become the strongest evidence refuting the early sweeping condemnation of new religions as causes of psychological trauma.

J. Gordon Melton
Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory

Apostates are not the most credible sources of information

Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard the apostate as a creditable or reliable source of evidence. He must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias with respect to both his previous religious commitment and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been first a victim but subsequently to have become a redeemed crusader. As various instances have indicated, he is likely to be suggestible and ready to enlarge or embellish his grievances to satisfy that species of journalist whose interest is more in sensational copy than in a objective statement of the truth.

Bryan R. Wilson
Apostates and New Religious Movements

One of the most common reasons skewing occurs when apostates tell their stories is that they must somehow explain to their listeners how they presumably intelligent, discerning people could have joined such a "despicable" group in the first place. For many apostates, saying that maybe the group wasn't that despicable after all is not an option (even if it is the truth), given their anger towards the group. (Consider, by way of analogy, how much easier it is, when a marriage ends, for one ex-partner, divorcing in anger, to blame the other partner and paint horrific pictures of him or her, rather than acknowledging that maybe they both were well-meaning but just couldn't get it to work out.) And certainly saying that they themselves were stupid and easily duped is not an option. That leaves only one way out: to paint the group as so diabolical, so monstrous, that even intelligent, discerning people (like the apostate, of course) are easily and helplessly "sucked in" and "manipulated":

Others may ask, if the group is as transparently evil as he now contends, why did he espouse its cause in the first place? In the process of trying to explain his own seduction and to confirm the worst fears about the group, the apostate is likely to paint a caricature of the group that is shaped more by his current role as apostate than by his actual experience in the group.

David G. Bromley, Anson D. Shupe, Jr. and J.C. Ventimiglia,
"The Role of Anecdotal Atrocities in the Social Construction of Evil," in Bromley and Richardson,
Brainwashing Deprogramming Controversy, p. 156

The destructive power of media sensationalism and apostasy

If, in his day, Judas, after becoming disgruntled with Jesus, had also had the power of the media behind him as well, then in addition to Jesus getting crucified, most likely Christianity would never have gotten off the ground.

These days it is very often the case that the only view the public gets of a new religious movement is the negative, sensationalized one stemming from apostates. Seeking for a way to emotionally separate themselves from the movement and reclaim their reputation in front of others, they find their "out" through linking up with a media eager for sensational negative press of any kind.

An example of destructive media / apostate synergy: "negative summary events"

One recurring theme, particularly destructive to new religious movements, is what some sociologists have called negative summary events.

Newspapers are well known to recapitulate earlier sensationalist accounts when locating new stories in similar vein about particular movements a practice designated by some sociologists as the use of "negative summary events." ["This refers to the journalistic description of a situation or event in such a way as to capture and express its negative essence as part of an intermittent and slow-moving story. An apparently isolated happening is thereby used as an occasion for keeping the broader, controversial phenomenon in the public mind." James A. Beckford, Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements, London, Tavistock, 1985, p. 235.]

By this means, the dramatic import of each apostate's story is reinforced in its significance, to the detriment of objective and ethically neutral enquiry into religious phenomena of the kind undertaken by academic sociologists. Contemporary religious bodies, operating in a context of rapid social change and changing perceptions of religious and spiritual belief, are likely to be particularly susceptible to the disparagement and misrepresentation which occurs through the circulation and repetition of the accounts of apostates.

Bryan R. Wilson
Apostates and New Religious Movements

At some point in the history of a new religious movement, an apostate brings a lawsuit against his or her former religion, and the media picks up the event for its sensationalistic value. From then on, the media appends (to every mention of the group in the news) a reference to the earlier negative summary event:

  • even when the current reason for mentioning is completely unrelated to the negative event (e.g., someone in the group won an award);

  • even when the negative event occurred decades earlier;

  • even when the "negative" event was completely resolved in the group's favor: the lawsuit was found to have no merit; the apostate lost the case; the parties settled out of court; the apostate confesses, even in writing, that most or all of what they said was untrue, and communicated in a fit of anger comparable to what ex-partners might say in a messy divorce.

Why would members of the media (not all, but many) do something that would be considered inappropriate and unprofessional by all measures of journalistic ethics? Such actions would violate, for example, the following principles in the Code of Conduct used by the British National Union of Journalists:

A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the press and other media in relation to the collection of information and the expression of comment and criticism. He/she shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship.

A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/ she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation.

A journalist shall not lend himself/ herself to the distortion or suppression of the truth because of advertising or other considerations.

A journalist shall only mention a person's age, race, colour, creed, illegitimacy, disability, marital status (or lack of it), gender or sexual orientation if this information is strictly relevant. A journalist shall neither originate nor process material which encourages discrimination, ridicule, prejudice or hatred on any of the above-mentioned grounds.

from the Code of Conduct
adopted by the British National Union of Journalists

Clearly the motivation is to "spice up" an otherwise rather mundane report with the kind of sensationalism that sells magazines and increases television ratings. Often their memory is "aided" by the apostates themselves, who, upon hearing that something neutral or positive about their former group is being reported, call the newspaper, TV station, etc. and say, "By the way, don't forget to mention . . ."

Here's a representative example, adapted from an actual newspaper article. A branch of a new religious movement opens up a new center in a new town. Typical of the kind of reportage it gets is the following:

Beginning in the fall, the followers of John Smith, founder of the Smegma religion, entered the community with the stated intention of being good neighbors. And they are expanding their presence as these pages reach readers' hands.

Prior to September, few area residents had heard of the religion known as Smegma or its leader, John Smith. News of the religious group's arrival has led some residents to question if the organization is a cult, while others are concerned about increased traffic in their quiet neighborhood.

Local group spokesperson Jane Doe emphatically argues against the notion Smegma is anything like a cult, and says traffic concerns are being addressed. But in 1970, John Smith was the target of a lawsuit accusing him of [*** bad things ***]. Church leaders contend that the accusations were false and that the lawsuit was later dropped.

The current event being reported is an opening of a new branch of the movement. For journalists adhering to ethical standards, that would be the end of the report. It is the addition of the negative summary event (the reference to the lawsuit in 1970) that is unethical. The last sentence is not unusual. The phrase, "church leaders contend" is deliberately added in to make the reader wonder whether they were telling the truth. But whether the lawsuit was dropped is not a matter of "contention". Thus any ethical journalist would have spent the extra hour determining whether the lawsuit was dropped or not after all, it is a black and white fact that is a matter of record! Further, any ethical journalist would not have included the reference to the lawsuit if it had been dropped.

Thus the following are useful to keep one's eyes open for, as indicators of "negative summary events":

  • References in the news, or made by apostates, to events that took place decades ago Apart from the birth pangs that any new religious movement goes through (even Christianity) which then disappear as the kinks get ironed out, any group that is inherently problematic shows ongoing signs of problems. Inability on the part of either apostates or the media to point to such ongoing evidence of problems, or tortured explanations of how all those "decades old" problems are still going on but just cleverly hidden (or whatever), are further indicators that one is witnessing an occurrence of a "negative summary event".

  • References to events like lawsuits without fully elaborating on how they were resolved; resistance to acknowledging the obvious implication of the suits being dismissed or apostates later recanting on their original accusations; etc. again these are indicators that such suits were brought up as "negative summary events", not as unbiased information helping listeners or readers get at the truth of the movement.


Bryan R. Wilson   Apostates and New Religious Movements
Massimo Introvigne   Religious Liberty in Europe: Apostates



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