AFF's 1998/99 Student
The cult phenomenon is a controversial area in which
well-intentioned people can have widely divergent opinions. Therefore, in order to
maintain journalistic standards, student journalists studying the cult phenomenon should
strive to do the following:
- Keep in mind the distinction between fact, testimony,
and opinion. Opinion and personal testimony are much more prevalent and easy to come by
than demonstrable facts.
- Whether or not a particular group is a cult is almost
invariably a matter of opinion and should be presented as such. In part, this is because
there is much disagreement about the proper definition of "cult" and in
part because the relevant scientific evidence is either lacking for a particular group or
is probably not definitive.
- Try to get multiple perspectives on the issue you are
investigating. AFF's Cultic
Studies Bibliography contains references to works that are sympathetic toward
cults, as well as those that are critical. The introductory chapters of AFF's Recovery From Cults briefly describe
the scientific debates on this issue and give references from critical and sympathetic
viewpoints. The links
section on AFF's Web site lists sites that are both critical and sympathetic of
controversial and other groups.
- Even the opinions of experts should be treated as
opinion, because other experts with similar credentials might disagree.
- Keep in mind the distinction between a theoretical
"mind control" or "brainwashing" or "thought reform")
and the actual experiences of somebody who has been in a cultic group. Theoretical
explanations are merely tools to help us understand what somebody has experienced; they
are abstract and can be replaced by other theoretical tools, by other abstract
explanations. On the other hand, a person's experience, if properly described (who, what,
when, where), is concrete and particular -- although the implications or meaning of that
experience may be the subject of abstract speculation.
- Keep in mind the fact that because all people are
different various people will respond differently to the same group environment.
Generalizations about human behavior are generalizations, not natural laws. If you throw
100 stones in the air, 100 stones will all fall at the same speed because of the laws of
physics. If you subjected 100 people to a particular stimulus (e.g., a cultic
recruitment), you might get an "average" response, but around that
"average" you would find great variability in the responses of the individual
subjects. People do not behave like stones falling under the force of gravity.
- Even cult critics view cultic groups as
self-perpetuating, systems in which members may be simultaneously victims and victimizers.
Therefore, respect should be shown to members as well as former members of groups. And a
distinction should be made between behaviors and practices that may sometimes have harmful
effects and other aspects of the same group, which may be positive.
- Because some groups take umbrage at criticism and may follow up
with legal actions, Journalist should exercise care in examining controversial groups.
Share these considerations with your faculty advisor. We strongly review the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalist