AWARD CUP.GIF (2653 bytes)AFF's 1998/99 International
  Student Journalist Contest


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AFF's 1998/99 Student Journalist Contest

Important Contest Considerations

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 explanation (e.g., "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 association.