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In mid-May, one of Harold Camping's followers holds up a sign in Times Square warning of the impending Rapture. (Credit: CBS News, screenshot) windows messenger, youtube to mp3

Another Apocalypse is predicted for October 21, 2011.  Will radio host Harold Camping and his followers again serve as fodder for media mockery? Most importantly, will the media wake up this time around to see that mocking religious beliefs that don’t comport with one’s own is an infringement on a basic right that is crucial to America’s foundation, that of freedom of religion.

Two months ago, the vast majority of Americans read and watched as overzealous coverage and jokes about the Rapture permeated the media reports about Camping’s prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011.

The media’s treatment of Camping and his followers turned their right to religious freedom into a public pillorying, not unfamiliar to that of many religious groups throughout history that fled persecution.

Now, with his May 2011 prediction having failed, Camping believes he has another chance. The media also has a second chance to employ journalism values that were, we argue, abandoned by media outlets ranging from the New York Times to CNN.

Harold Camping : Self-Proclaimed Prophet

At the center of the story is Harold Camping, an 89-year-old preacher and host of “Family Radio,” an Oakland, CA-based station that broadcasts to more than 200 radio stations in all 50 U.S. states and internationally on digital satellite radio.

Camping convinced followers to change their lives in anticipation of what he insisted was the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture, in which the world would end and devout believers would supposedly enter heaven. Camping made the same prediction in 1994.

Preacher Harold Camping tells ABC News to expect the Rapture on May 21, 2011 (Credit: ABC News, screenshot)

Though his prediction for May 21 proved wrong, Camping claims that instead a “spiritual” judgment took place on May 21 and predicts that the world will physically end on October 21 of this year, according to the Christian Post.

 

What about Freedom of Religion?

By mocking their beliefs instead of reporting with respect and tolerance, the media may play a role in undermining religious groups by ridiculing them, Dr. Bill Leonard, professor of Christian history at Wake Forest Divinity School, wrote to iMediaEthics in an email.

“On one level the media may in a sense silence or undermine religious liberty by singling out groups and critiquing them in derogatory ways,” he wrote.

Bellittling religious groups can qualify as “implicit religious prosecution” because some people may trust the media to judge which religions are “false,” Leonard stated.

However, religious groups run into the most trouble when they “make statements or present theologies that offer immediate promises.”  Therefore, these individuals take the chance of having to “live with the response of the society/culture when our claims are discredited,” Leonard told iMediaEthics.

Though religious groups “cannot dictate” the way that the public will perceive them, the media still should not cause harm to these groups in their reporting, he pointed out.

“If the media publishes analyses or critiques of religious groups that bring about violence or [are] detrimental to their public life, that is a problem,” he wrote.

 

Rapture Mockery: The New Media Entertainment?

The Associated Press and CNN, however, both wrote reports that were filled to the brim with references to jokes about the Rapture.

An Associated Press article on May 18 titled “End of the world? How about a party instead?” reported on various ways the Rapture has been mocked, including a Facebook group, a comic strip, and a “two-day extravaganza” in North Carolina.

The jokes continued in a May 21 CNN report titled “It’s NOT the end of the world as we know it,” which quoted a highly sarcastic speech on the Rapture from CNN’s own reporter Jim Brenneman.

Brenneman told CNN that he probably would not be able to enter heaven “with all the other self-righteous wing nuts.”

“If that happens, feel free to have my stuff,” he said. “But probably not! Let the Looting Begin! HAPPY APOCALYPSE EVERYONE!!”

The article noted that due to the Rapture prediction’s failure, “people around the world sure were making jokes like there was no tomorrow.”

The Daily Beast also editorialized on the story for laughs. One post, “A Reality Check for the Doomsday Unhinged,” called Camping’s followers “poor dupes.” The post highlighted the case of Robert Fitzpatrick, an MTA worker who reportedly donated his $140,000 pension to Camping by stating, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

MTA worker Robert Fitzpatrick (left) is questioned shortly after the Rapture failed to occur. Fitzpatrick reportedly gave Camping his pension in anticipation of the Rapture. (Credit: YouTube, “cdrosengren,” screenshot)

 

Some of the media couldn’t resist the urge to mock the people who believed in the Rapture, according to Eileen Heuwetter, whose aunt Doris Schmitt willed $250,000 to Camping before her death on May 2. The New York Daily News reported that this decision upset Schmitt’s remaining family.

Heuwetter told iMediaEthics via Facebook message that she was dissatisfied with the media’s reaction to Camping’s followers. Heuwetter wrote:

“I spoke up about this for the obvious reason that Harold Camping is taking advantage of alot of people. However, one other reason that this whole thing bothered me was how the media did ridicule the many people who followed Harold Camping. My aunt wasn’t ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’….she was like alot of people in this world – wanting to believe there was something more than just ‘this.’ Alot of these people are some of the most vulnerable of our society.”

Did the media report heavily on the Rapture with jokes because there were no other news stories to focus on? Judge for yourself:

Non-Rapture or Non-Story?

Other news stories on May 21 and 22 included:

  • An attack by Islamic militants on a Pakistani Navy airbase (CBS News)
  • A NATO report that Libya’s leader Moammar Gadhafi had gone into hiding (Voice of America News)
  • A sit-in by Pakistanis protesting U.S. drone strikes (Al Jazeera)
  • China and South Korea’s agreement to help Japan with disaster recovery after its “post-tsunami nuclear crisis” (Associated Press)

However, major news outlets including the New York Times  and the New York Post proclaimed that the world had not ended, a fact that their readership likely figured out for themselves.

A May 21 headline from the New York Post declared, “Apocalypse later: World doesn’t end.” The article stated that the prediction “fizzled out into a whole lot of nothing.”

The New York Post is one of many major news outlets that stated the obvious: That the world still exists. (Credit: NYPost, screenshot detail)

A similar May 21 New York Times headline stated, “Despite Careful Calculations, the World Does Not End.”  That article, which led with “Whew,” stated that “humankind had survived” and that “as of late Saturday, planet Earth seemed to continue to spin in the cosmos.” Both statements were true, but also entirely self-evident.

New York Times reporter Jesse McKinley, who wrote that article, told iMediaEthics by email that the Times wanted to wrap up the newspaper’s coverage of the Rapture. McKinley explained to iMediaEthics:

“It was necessary to ‘close the loop’ on the story, something I did in a largely tongue in cheek fashion.”

However, iMediaEthics believes that the Times, along with many other publications, started the loop on the story in anticipation of this final report and “fun” headline, knowing full well that the Rapture day would pass without event.

iMediaEthics , a project of Art Science Research Laboratory, was created to “advocate for more rigorous — and scientific — journalistic methodology.”  For full disclosure, we take the position of science when commenting on the Rapture.

This situation bears a resemblance to staging events; after all, these publications knew how events would play out.  Instead of “closing the loop,” and reporting a series of mocking, “tongue-in-cheek” stories, more value sensitive and responsible news outlets would have simply reported Camping’s claim for the Rapture and left it at that.

An Over-reported, Inflated Story?

The news story was a simple one at its core: a fringe group held an unusual set of beliefs.

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iMediaEthics believes it likely that by mocking Camping’s followers, the media unnecessarily gave it oxygen and kept the story going through what media ethicists call “disproportionate coverage.”

Furthermore, by doing so, it is certainly possible that the media generated further support and donations for Camping by drawing so much attention to his message.

The question here is a classic chicken-or-the-egg situation: Did media coverage create more followers for Camping, or did the negative coverage warn potential followers away?

The media vigorously documented the story, perhaps sensing a perfect setup for Camping’s story’s entertainment value and potential traffic.

 

Many of Google’s most-searched terms on May 20 pertain to the predicted Rapture. (Credit: Google, screenshot)

Google’s second most-searched term in the United States on May 19 was “End of the world May 21.”  Google’s top 20 most-searched terms in the United States on May 20 included six terms related to the Rapture such as “judgment day 2011” and “Rapture May 21 2011.”

Consequently, the media produced the story that was in high demand.  A June 19 Google news search of “Rapture 2011”  produces more than 7,000 results, not including the broadcast and radio coverage that happened at the time.

So how would these numbers compare to another news topic?

A Google news search of “Middle East protests” – in reference to the recent wave of uprisings that has swept nations such as Jordan, Yemen and Egypt – turns up about 6910 results.

It seems that with all the ingredients of a crowd-pleaser – a self-proclaimed prophet, followers who believed him, and a prediction that was doomed to fail – media outlets wanted to keep the story going.

 

Treat People with Dignity?

“Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

Debra Mason, director of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, agrees. She  told iMediaEthics via email that journalists need to treat their suspects with respect.

“Communicating faith in a respectful and thorough way is extraordinarily difficult, but it can be done. First and foremost, it requires the hallmark of all quality journalism: Respect for your subject,” she wrote.  “You may not agree with their beliefs or their practices, but you must approach them with the respect every human being deserves.”

Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark told iMediaEthics by phone that journalists must subtract cynicism from their reports on these subjects.  Clark said:

“I very much admire journalism and journalists who try as hard as they can to see the world from the point of view of those who are marginalized in society.  I think you can make a strong case that people who are preparing for the end of the world are afflicted in some way, and they’re certainly marginalized.”

Clark added:  “That doesn’t mean that their point of view has to be presented without skepticism, but I think it does mean that their point of view has to be received, or understood, without cynicism.”

 

 Other Critics Speak Out

Tiffany Stanley of the New Republic made a conscious and ethical decision to avoid treating Rapture believers disrespectfully.

Stanley told iMediaEthics by phone that she originally planned to follow a family that believed in the Rapture on May 21 and then chronicle their disappointment for the New Republic. However, she realized the assignment would negatively exploit whomever she followed, she said.

“When I first started reporting it, I realized this is something that’s very deep in these people’s lives. They truly believe this. They’ve given up so much,” she said.   “I just felt like ethically, in terms of having a certain compassion for these people, this is just not something I feel personally comfortable doing.”

While some outlets have portrayed the consequences of Camping’s predictions “with compassion,” others have “opted for smug superiority and cheap laughs,” Stanley wrote in a May 21 column.

Stanley could have been one of those reporters; instead she chose not to participate in a culture of mockery by following this family.

At least three other religious reporters have criticized media coverage of the Rapture.

Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief of Religious News Service, told iMediaEthics by phone that media coverage tended to be under-researched and oversimplified, leading to superficial and sensational coverage.

“Media coverage tended to see the folks who believed this as stupid, ignorant, not able to think for themselves; a sort of caricature,” Eckstrom said.

iMediaEthics asked Daniel Burke, associate editor and national correspondent for Religious News Service who published a roundup of Rapture media coverage, about the media’s reporting on the Rapture.

“I think the media has always walked down the path of self-importance, if not self-righteousness,” he wrote in an email response. “The impulse to share news is, after all, showing people that you know more than they do, right? And doesn’t that make you feel big and proud?”

“It is time to recover the idea of journalism as community service, and journalists as servants – to the truth and to the people who read us,” Burke told iMediaEthics.

Gary Laderman, director of the daily online magazine Religion Dispatches stated in a May 22 blog post that “Fringe” leaders such as Camping often catch the public attention and “create a media frenzy.”

J. Terry Todd, an associate professor of American Religious Studies at Drew University, noted in a May 20 blog post that much of the coverage “was marked by a whiff of superiority and a tone of condescension, intended to put distance between ‘us’ (the rational public) and ‘them’ (the purveyors of prophecy belief and their gullible consumers).”

iMediaEthics’ review of the Rapture coverage pinpoints the main lesson to keep in mind this October.  Marginalized subjects such as Camping’s followers are worthy of respectful treatment and such respect as part of our society’s commitment to religious freedom.

Hopefully, leading up to October 21, 2011, Camping’s next predicted Judgment Day, media outlets will set a higher standard than displayed in May. We can disagree with beliefs but according to media ethics we must also respect our sources to enjoy freedom of the press and religion.

UPDATE: 08/05/2011: 12:55 PM EST: iMediaEthics has written to all of the media outlets listed above for comment and will update with any response.

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Did the Media’s Mocking of Harold Camping violate religious freedom?

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13 Responses

  1. Bogolov says:

    What nonsense! No one has the right not to be mocked. You have the right to believe anything you want. That is religious freedom. You have the right to mock anyone else’s beliefs. That is freedom of speech.

  2. Rhonda Roland Shearer, StinkyJournalism.org editor says:

    @Bogolov, thanks for your comment. Think about history. Oppressed or minority religions and their believers were openly mocked and scorned in public forums. It drove citizens out of towns and even countries.

    Big media can and should criticize people and their beliefs–but such power can be dangerous and unjust when religions are also dehumanized by public mocking and scorn.

    StinkyJournalism believes that there is a difference between healthy and toxic criticism.

    I personally believe that freedom of religion is eroded when one is made to feel embarrassed to walk down the street because neighbors are reading the news headlines and reports that mock your religion as a stupid. I believe too, this is a misuse of power. You can vehemently disagree with your neighbors. Say they are wrong–but that is quite different than personal attacks.

  3. HeartScot says:

    It seems to me you are putting forward the that ‘religion should not be criticised’. No person, religion or other group should be afforded that right, nobody and no thing should be untouchable, critism is critism, mocking or constructive, it is by these means that society controls its’ extremes, if we take away this option, you remove freedom of speech and freedom of the press, isn’t this exactly what extreeme religious groups want, don’t play into their hands.

  4. Corinne Segal says:

    @HeartScot – Thanks for the feedback! I am by no means suggesting that our society should remove a critical media and take away freedom of the press. However, to me there is a difference between "criticism" and "mockery" in the press. One serves a practical and educational purpose; the other simply does not. We need to think about how our media contributes to society. The sort of mockery outlined in this article contributes nothing positive, and serves only for profitable entertainment.

  5. Bogolov says:

    But, Rhonda, how far would you take this principle? Is there no religious belief so ridiculous that it would be exempt from the No Mockery rule? Can we not mock Scientology, and its belief in " Xenu, the ruler of the Galactic Confederacy who brought billions of frozen people to Earth 75 million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs, creating swarms of disembodied alien souls known as Body Thetans"? I think we should mock Scientology, even if it hurts their feelings. In Harold Camping’s case, when what he preached went against all science, against all common sense, against even a straight-forward reading of the Bible (Matt. 24:36), I think think it is the duty of clear thinking people to mock him and his followers. The right to freedom of religion does not include the right not to have your feelings hurt. Does this mean that journalists have the right to publish caricatures of the prophet Muhammad? Absolutely. And if Muslims riot in the streets, so be it. Violence is horrible, but it may bring them a little closer to the idea that rioting over a cartoon is a stupid thing to do. And if H. Camping’s deluded followers are publicly ridiculed, maybe, just maybe, a few of them may think, hey maybe this is silly, and decide NOT to give away their life savings to the preacher, or attempt to murder their children to save them from the apocalypse. That would be a good thing. Personally, I hope the media pull out all the stops for the new Oct 21st End-of-World. I hope Harold Camping recovers fully from his stroke, and is completely healthy on Oct 22nd and 23rd and for much longer, so the whole world can mock him to his face, and his followers too. Giving respect, or worse, pretending to give respect to ideas that do not deserve respect does not make this a better world. We need more reality, not less. “I personally believe that freedom of religion is eroded when one is made to feel embarrassed to walk down the street because neighbors are reading the news headlines and reports that mock your religion as a stupid.” But what if, in fact, objectively speaking, your religion IS stupid? I think you should be embarrassed.

  6. Bogolov says:

    Much of the reporting that might be considered mockery by the press was actually reporting the mockery of others. H. Camping puts forth the inane proposition that the Rapture will be on May 21st. Various mockers suggest putting small piles of unwanted clothing – a shirt, pants, pair of shoes – in little piles around town early on the morning of the Day. True believers would see these piles of clothes, and think, "O no! It really happened, and I didn’t make the cut!" Is this cruel? Yep. Does it cause unnecessary distress to the True Believer? What do you mean by "unnecessary"? It is very funny, and I’m glad the media reported it.

  7. Rhonda Roland Shearer, StinkyJournalism.org editor says:

    Bogolov, you write, "But what if, in fact, objectively speaking, your religion IS stupid? I think you should be embarrassed." Herein lies the problem. Everyone believes their religion is the right one or they would join another religion.

    Religions are not objectively true in terms of science but choices of faith. What seems normal to me in one religion may be bizarre and even stupid to others. This very point is why respect for others rights to believe something we don’t is important to ensure freedoms in our society.

    It is always fair for newspapers and other media to criticize. However two points: 1. commentary and criticism need to be properly labeled as such and not passed off as news–like what happened in this case. 2. fair criticism is not a license for personal attacks and public ridicule by the media in news stories–as in this case.

  8. Bogolov says:

    Rhonda, you say “What seems normal to me in one religion may be bizarre and even stupid to others. This very point is why respect for others rights to believe something we don’t is important to ensure freedoms in our society.” I don’t see that sentence two logically follows from sentence one. Again, you have the right to believe anything you want. I respect your right to believe anything you want. I don’t have to respect what you believe, and I don’t have to respect you for believing silly things. I have the freedom to mock you for your beliefs. This does not diminish your freedom to believe, even it it makes you sad. And, of course, you have the freedom to mock my beliefs. This is nothing if not fair. These people are victims of their own beliefs, and I do feel sorry for them, even if I find it impossible not to laugh at them. But don’t forget, Harold Camping and his followers all believed that they would be raptured up to Heaven on May 21. That is silly, but not evil. But they also fervently believed that you and I, and everyone else on earth would suffer unspeakable horror and agony for then next several months, and would eventually spend eternity in Hell being tortured by demons. And they believed it was just and fair for God to decree this. Now that isn’t very nice, is it?

  9. Rhonda Roland Shearer, StinkyJournalism.org editor says:

    @Bogolov, the difference is found within the power of the press. We are criticizing the media for using news articles to mock people’s beliefs. We agree with media ethics guidelines that support the value of respect for others while at the same time disagreeing with them. If you mock someone’s religious beliefs that you find weird this is different than an institution–say the NY Times– mocking the same beliefs in a news story. We will have to agree to disagree on this issue. You or I could pick apart each other’s arguments making it personal and insulting –even making fun at each other’s expense–but have chosen otherwise. This choice has resulted in a constructive exchange in my view.

  10. Bogolov says:

    Rhonda, I agree the discussion has been interesting, and perhaps we have been talking at cross purposes, so to speak. I DO understand the distinction you make between the individual and the institution. Nevertheless, most of the "mockery" you report from the news media was in fact simply reporting the mockery of others. That is valid and part of the story. The other "mockeries" seem to be of an editorial nature, which is also valid. And let us remember the question in the title of your piece. "DID THE MEDIA’S MOCKING OF HAROLD CAMPING VIOLATE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?". I think the answer is clearly no. Suppose you are a Campingite, and it is May 20, and you notice that the media is running stories saying that lots of people think you are a nut. Is your religious freedom impaired in any way? I don’t see how. And anyway, by tomorrow, you will be sitting at the right hand of Jesus, and those mockers will feel pretty silly, won’t they. Jump ahead two days. It is now May 22, the world hasn’t ended or even changed in any noticeable way. You notice that the media is running stories mentioning that and perhaps being a bit snarky about it. Is your religious freedom being impaired now? Again I don’t see it. You may feel a bit silly and foolish, but you know what? You OUGHT to feel silly and foolish. And maybe the next time some charlatan comes along demanding your faith and your wallet, you might act a bit more sensibly. The media did not violate religious freedom in this instance: at the worst it hurt some peoples’ feelings by reporting the truth. That is the media’s job.

  11. ben says:

    What in the world does "violate religious freedom" mean? You can’t seriously think that there is such a thing as "religious" freedom from criticism. Can you? If you do, you don’t possess a working knowledge of the First Amendment, and that’s shocking.

  12. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    I think we have made and remade the same point. Criticism is fine. However, it is common sense that millions of visitors of news outlets reading headlines that mock and ridicule a particular religion is intimidating to any member of that minority religion. If one is intimidated–pilloried– one’s freedom to practice a religion is reduced.

    Disagree but respect and tolerance are keys to all of us enjoying freedoms.

  13. Guest says:

    first we have to ask "who is the media?" is it the stock holders of ABC NBC CBC etc. ? is it the editors of those corporations news departments ? was it the anchors doing the mocking ? to say "the media" mocked camping is kind of broad and since camping himself doesn’t consider family stations incorporated a "religion", then "the media" wasn’t {mocking} "religion", they were {mocking} "a man" who has once before falsely predicted the rapture and if they were "mocking" at all. most stories i saw on tv news just reported it

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