Scientology has long been a tricky subject for journalists to cover; the corporate-structured religious movement has a reputation for litigation, against government agencies, news organisations and individuals.
Given this it is all the more interesting to consider the recent series of articles about Scientology in Florida’s St Petersburg Times, which focus on the behaviour of its leader David Miscavige and offer a counterpoint to the Church’s own line that “since the founding of the first Church of Scientology in 1954, Scientology has become the fastest-growing religion in the world.”
The Times presented the series as three large articles (totalling nearly 15,000 words, with the first article alone stacking up 6,618) published across print and web over three consecutive days, starting on Sunday 21st June. In addition the paper ran ancillary features which fleshed out elements of the main story, provided historical context, and also laid out some of the raw material which helped to underpin the series.
With its coverage the Times demonstrates some interesting and sometimes imaginative ways of handling a contentious issue, as well as leaving room for improvement in the future.
Name your sources
- The Times’ articles were principally based on lengthy interviews with four formerly high-ranking members of the Church of Scientology, each of whom had subsequently left, all of whom are named – Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Tom De Vocht and Amy Scobee
Sign your work
- The journalists responsible for the articles are clearly named – managing editor Joe Childs and Thomas C Tobin – and their email addresses published
Show your workings
- The story of how the story was written is included, under the title ‘About the story’
- Excerpts from videotaped interviews with two of the whistleblowers, Marty Rathbun and Amy Scobee, are included; these are email- and embed-friendly
Give right of reply
- The Times notes that it had asked to interview Scientology leader David Miscavige numerous times since 13th May, and had “met with church spokesmen and lawyers for 25 hours”
- Throughout the articles are rebuttals by Church spokesmen to specific allegations made by the whistleblowers
- A detailed article on 20th June – trailing the publication of the main features – gave an overview of the Church’s criticisms of the articles (as well as space to the ‘ethics files’ – confessional documents written by Scientologists and retained by the Church – of the whistleblowers)
- In addition the paper has published audio excerpts from interviews with Church spokesman Tommy Davis
- Finally, the Times published a written response to the articles by David Miscavige himself
- The series included useful background information, such as a glossary of terms used in Scientology and a timeline of significant dates
- Archive videos from a range of sources, including Google Video and YouTube, add an extra dimension to the contextual material
Exploit your own resources
- Instead of rewriting too much, the Times makes use of its own, extensive past reportage of Scientology issues, both in the form of links to more recent stories held on its own website, and to older stories (some held on the Google News Archive)
- The Times website search engine usefully offers a four button choice – trawling the web, the newspaper’s site, the paper’s own archive (full text of pre-web published articles back to 1987), and Google News Archive (which provides scans of the paper as far back as 1901)
Report on the wake
- Finally, the Times has kept abreast of the response to the articles from not just other mainstream media news outlets but also bloggers, commenters and others from across the wider web
However, despite all the positive aspects we can see on show, especially in terms of marshalling so much material in a web-friendly fashion, we can also see some shortfalls in the presentation of the series.
Clearly much of the success of the series lies with the nature and exclusivity of the material presented; its weaknesses lie in what happens to that material after publication, and in the way that the Times manages interaction with its audience. The following suggestions look at those areas.
More external linking
- Individual elements of the feature series do include external links to websites by, about and sometimes critical of the Church of Scientology, but there is no section bringing these together in one place
Republish multimedia on popular portals
- There appears to be no St Petersburg Times channel on YouTube – those video and audio materials could easily be watermarked and reupped to ensure the widest possible audience, all with links back to the feature’s homepage
Take note of Twitter
- Whilst individual Twitter users did link to the articles, there appears to have been no real attempt to drive the story through Twitter or other microblogging platforms
- In particular there was no specific #hashtag attached to the series, and hashtags.org logs use of the #scientology tag over the three days of original publication, 21st-23rd June, at a meagre three, 11 and 21 (contrast that with 13,837, 8,187 and 18,222 over the same period for #iranelection)
- In mitigation Kevin McGeever, senior online news editor/assistant managing editor of tampabay.com, is a Twitter user and did tweet about the articles
Make discussion easier
- The individual articles have comments sections beneath them, but there is no overarching discussion function for the whole series, which can make for disjointed interaction at best; comments are also restricted to 250 characters
Present more primary evidence
- Given that much of what is described relates to court cases, medical examiner’s reports and other legal filings, it would make sense to publish relevant, publicly available material in as unredacted form as possible so that readers may form their own judgements (such as the Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK have done with MPs’ expenses)
Own the story
- The St Petersburg Times has done the legwork, but like the Telegraph on MPs’ expenses, it risks being overlooked as other news organisations take on the story: at time of writing, a Google News search on Scientology brings up 406 related articles across the first two results – but with the Times noted as the primary article in only one of them
- It is also interesting to note that the Scientology page on Wikinews has not been updated to include reference to the Times’ articles – the most recent article listed is from 31st May 2009
- If you are publishing your material in full for free on the web, then add syndication links – if not to each individual report in the series, then at the very least to the series homepage – so that readers who subscribe can more easily discover if you have added new reports; if you can offer RSS feeds for mug shots of local arrestees, then surely you can do it for a major news feature?