Channel 13 News in Albany, NY reported on a story that came out in the New York Times. In the reporting, the victim blaming was rampant. I have analyzed the transcripts below.
Transcript: There’s shocking allegations about a group that’s long been at the center of controversy in our area. That group is NXIVM. Based in Albany, it was founded in 1998 by Keith Raniere.
This is factual and fair.
Transcript: It’s been called a successful executive coaching program by some and a cult by others. A New York Times report out Wednesday says some female members are called “slaves” and have been branded with Raniere’s initials.
Dignifying: Describing that some call it a successful executive coaching program allows the reader to clue in there was something positive in the program.
Transcript: This had us wondering what would compel anyone to join an organization that brands them or abuses others?
Humiliating: This implies that there is something wrong with the survivors in the story, as if they knew ahead of time that they would be branded, or that they were joining an organization that harmed people. This suggests that all in this group were mentally deficient.
Transcript: A local psychiatrist says these types of groups prey on certain people and take advantage of their vulnerabilities.
Dignifying: Using the word “prey” acknowledges that the group was predatory, as does using the term “take advantage.”
Humiliating: Classifying the victims as a separate group of people (“certain people”) with “vulnerabilities” suggests that these people are different from normal people. The fact is that everyone has vulnerabilities, and master manipulators simply find a way to twist each individual’s vulnerabilities to his own advantage. Furthermore, whenever there is a victim, the focus should stay on the behaviors and techniques used by the predator, not on what was wrong with the prey.
Transcript: “It is a question that people ask all the time. It’s not that people want to be branded and abused — but rather they feel the cult is the key to what they need to make them whole.”
Humiliating: This is again misleading viewers and readers to believe that only flawed people (people who are not whole) will become victims of cults. This is false and demeaning.
Transcript: The door was wide open at the NXIVM office in Colonie, when NewsChannel 13 showed up to ask questions. They told us to wait outside. Moments later, someone shut the door without saying a word. We went there to see if anyone would defend allegations in the New York Times by women who say they were branded to join a sisterhood within the organization.
Transcript: The women described they were instructed to say: “Master please brand me, it would be an honor,” before the room was filled with burning flesh.
Dignifying: This made it clear it was not their idea.
Humiliating: While the statement may be factual, omitting critical information before this statement is problematic. There is no discussion of the coercion, the fear of loss or retaliation for not complying, or key research in social psychology such as cognitive dissonance, conformity studies, loss aversion or undue influence. Without this information, it makes the viewer/reader question the sanity of someone who would participate.
To learn more about undue influence or cult mind control, please contact
Steve Hassan at Freedom of Mind,
Rick Ross of www.culteducation.com/
Patrick Ryan of Interventions101
Or you can find a list of experts from the International Cultic Studies Association ICSAInternational
Transcript: They told the paper they were required to give a nude photograph and warned the photos may be released publicly if they talked about the group.
Humiliating: This is humiliating for the same omissions above. Additionally, here was a missed opportunity to dignify the survivors by using the word blackmail, and pointing out the tremendous risk the survivors faced for coming forward. This was an opportunity to point out the bravery of the women who spoke out. Without pointing that out, the viewer/reader is left interpreting the line as further confirmation of the foundational theme – that there was something wrong with the victims.
Transcript: “What is happening essentially is that these organizations and these people leverage your lack of an identity, your lack of a self into their own interest,” explained Psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Ferraioli.
Humiliating: To say that cult survivors lack an identity is victim blaming, humiliating, retraumatizing, and false. Perhaps this misinformed psychiatrist was thinking of the 1960’s when cults were in the news often for attracting teens, runaways, college students. Cult research has progressed lightyears since then, and this group in particular was promoting executive success. It attracted people with strong identities. It attracted highly successful people like Richard Branson, etc.
Transcript: He says it may seem strange that someone who appears to be fine and quite successful would join an organization that would brand or abuse them. However, he says they can’t help it. “Are you the type to idealize something or somebody? Because if you are, you’re vulnerable,” noted Ferraioli.
Humiliating: This suggests that people who “appeared to be fine” (but really weren’t) knew this organization would brand and abuse them, and they joined because “they could not help it. ” This again confirms the message that there is something wrong with the victims, so wrong that they cannot even help themselves from joining an abusive organization.
According to Lerner and Miller (1978), people have a tendency to devalue and denigrate victims, even those that are most deserving of sympathy, in order to bring about a more appropriate match between her character and her fate. This enables viewers to handle the presence of injustice. This is also known as Just World Beliefs. The idea is that victim must have done something to deserve her victimization, so they look to her behaviors, poor decisions or inherent flaws. If the victim did not deserve to be victimized, the world would not be a very safe place, and the viewer/reader in the story would feel uncomfortable, wondering if their own safety is threatened.
Transcript: Simply put, he says it stems from childhood where the adult is trying to fill an emptiness that was left behind. A cult takes advantage of that and makes you feel that they’re the savior.
Otherness. These words make the victims seem far different from the viewer/reader, putting them . Differentiating victims (i.e. painting them as unwise, gullible, weak, idiotic, too trusting, asking for it) sets the foundation for viewers to believe that victims merited their suffering due their internal characteristics. Psychological distance serves to mitigate viewer fear that they too could fall prey to the same misfortune (Lerner, 1980; Hafer & Bègue, 2005; Mahoy, 2012).
Humiliating: This focus on the victim is a fine example of committing the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (FAE) is when people interpret the behavior of others in way that places undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the victims, rather than the considering the external factors and pressure – which are the true causes.
Transcript: “Once you’ve decided that they are the key to my life, to my healing. They are the savior for me. You at that point are very much vulnerable to doing whatever it is they want you to do,” pointed out Ferraioli.
Humiliating: This makes survivors appear to be needy, ignorant and foolish, when this is rarely the case in real life. This entire article is positioned to create psychological distance between viewer/reader so the viewer/reader can feel comforted that they are nothing like the subjects in the story. Although it seems counterintuitive, psychological distancing happens more often when the victims are not significantly different from the viewers. By pummeling the victim into a dehumanized being with character deficiencies rather than focusing on the external circumstances that contributed to her victimization, viewers convince themselves that the victim deserved her fate. This thought gives viewers a sense of control and predictability over their world. Psychological distancing enables victim-blaming which allows the viewers to feel superior and safe (i.e. the same misfortune would never happen to them because they are not that stupid, they would never do that).
Transcript: Dr. Ferraioli says the person who joins a cult basically has the same disease as the one who creates it, this kind of fragility or narcisissm.
Appalling: In all my years of studying victim blaming and retraumatization caused by the media, the above quote takes the cake.
Since when is the prey as responsible as the predator? This is false and irresponsible. This rushed, sensational piece of content lacked sensitivity, utilized a misinformed “expert,” and attracted viewers at the expense of the psychological well-being of the victim.
GRADE – D –
This is my first D -, and I hope it is my last.
– Christine Marie Katas, PhDc – Media Psychology