International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation (IJCAM)
Vo. 5, (2023). Published April 16, 2023.
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Dhyana Levey and Roderick Dubrow-Marshall
Cults are a topic that is particularly misunderstood by the public. Some sociologists (Zablocki & Robbins, 2001) have complained that the people who join them are unfairly stigmatized as bizarre, potentially violent individuals in newspapers, television shows, books, and films. However, previous research (Goldberg et al., 2017) has shown that former cult members are actually vulnerable people who need help as they leave their groups and are suffering from problems such as shame, disassociation, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and self-destructive tendencies. This study examined whether former cult members frequently accessed media about cults and if that exposure related significantly to their symptoms of distress and well-being. It was the first of its kind to research whether the perception of biased or unfair media coverage about cults is a factor involved in survivors’ well-being and included a newly developed Media Exposure Scale regarding the coverage of cults. Key findings from a sample of former cult members (N=84) indicated that the more exposure a former cult member had to media about cults, the more negative feelings they developed about themselves and their sense of well-being regarding personal growth, self-acceptance, and their relationships with other people. However, a significant relationship between media exposure and distress was not found in this sample of former members. A reason for these results regarding media consumption and well-being could be that cults have been stigmatized in the media, and former members have potentially internalized those negative depictions to feel less positive about themselves. This research suggests that education campaigns by psychologists to media professionals about ethical ways to portray cults could be helpful. However, more research should be done on this topic to validate the new Media Exposure Survey created during this study and solidify its findings with a larger population to better understand the role of media depictions in former members’ well-being and recovery.