Religion Unplugged

Just say no: The four-letter word religion writers really want to avoid

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

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BETHESDA, Md. — “Don’t Call It a Cult.”

That was the title of one of the more intriguing sessions at last week’s Religion News Association annual meeting, held at a Washington, D.C.-area hotel.

Moderated by independent audio journalist Sarah Ventre, the panel featured Anuttama Dasa, global communications director for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Melissa Weisz, a podcaster who grew up in a Hasidic Jewish community; and Shirlee Draper, who was born and raised within a polygamous sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“The goal was to explore the ways in which we report on marginalized religious communities, particularly those that are often referred to as ‘cults,’” said Ventre, who hosted the award-winning 2020 podcast ”Unfinished: Short Creek,” about the fundamentalist Mormon community where Draper grew up on the Utah-Arizona border.

“I wanted to unpack the responsibilities we have both to our audience and to our sources,” the moderator added, “and examine the ways in which our reporting affects the communities we report on long after we publish.”

“Show, don’t tell” is a journalistic adage.

This session reinforced the importance of describing a specific pattern of abusive or manipulative behavior rather than resorting to more generalized terms like “cult” or “brainwashed.”

That’s not to say sources can’t describe their own experience as having escaped from a cult. Nor do journalists have to be completely relativist: They have a responsibility, to the extent possible, to evaluate and assess people’s — and leaders’ — accounts. Often, groups do have systemic ways of enabling abusers and abusive behavior, and journalists can identify that where they can verify it.

But news organizations need to be careful.

Just this week, Texas Monthly published an in-depth piece on an East Texas church the magazine described as “an insular fundamentalist religious group that some consider a cult.” The reporting is strong, but I’m not certain the cult reference is necessary.

I was curious, so I checked my own archive to see when I’ve used the term “cult”: It came up in a 2018 Religion News Service story I wrote on the 25th anniversary of David Koresh and 75 Branch Davidian followers dying in a firestorm near Waco, Texas. But the mentions were in a quote and a book title.

A new entry in the Associated Press’ updated religion stylebook seems appropriate:

cult A loaded term to be used with caution.

Or even better, as a Godbeat friend put it, “a whole lot of caution.”

“The only time I use it is when quoting someone who uses it or with a caveat along the lines of, ‘a term most scholars who study religion reject for its tone of judgment,’” said Kimberly Winston, a veteran religion journalist who freelances for publications including “To me, it carries the potential to inflict pain on people within the group being called a cult, and that’s something I try my best to avoid.”

Kelsey Dallas, who covers religion for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, agreed: “The issue with the word ‘cult’ is that it comes with a strong negative connotation. By using it, reporters risk drowning out the nuance within the stories people have to tell about their experiences in controversial faith groups. The panelists at RNA told us that they want the freedom to share good memories as well as the bad ones.”

For the record, the F-word (fundamentalist) also can be misused in news reporting. Here is AP’s stylebook guidance on that term:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early-20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

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