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.
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.”
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)
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.”
“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.