Why use labels (when facts are enough)?

Here we go again.

Then again, maybe not.

You may recall, especially if you are haunted by the hellish details of murders, a post that I wrote a year ago about the death of a 16-month-old boy named Javon Thompson while in the hands of his mother, Ria Ramkissoon, and other members of a small alternative religious group called One Mind Ministries.

The word “cult” was used frequently in the CNN.com story that I was writing about and, trust me, this was a case in which no sociologist or religious history scholar that I can imagine would have argued with this journalistic use of that oft-abused term. Click here for a flashback that includes all the hellish details.

The passage that jumped out at me was this one, which seems to be a paraphrase from the mother’s attorney, Steven Silverman:

Court documents say Ramkissoon joined One Mind Ministries after Javon’s birth in 2005. Silverman described her as a petite, soft-spoken woman who rejected her family’s Hindu religion, became a devout Christian and wanted to raise her son in that religion. …

The group insisted she wear a uniform the colors of royalty: white, tan and blue; give up her cell phone; stop referring to her family members by name; and not leave her home on her own, among other things.

Needless to say, after all of the beliefs and behaviors attributed to this group, I questioned CNN’s simple identification of this woman as choosing to become a “devout Christian” through membership in this particular, uh, small-group ministry.

Now the trial is approach and the metro desk of the Washington Post as produced an advance story that, in my opinion, offers readers plenty of factual material — while avoiding unnecessary labels. First, here is how the story opens:

Even by the standards of a Baltimore murder trial, the one set to start against Queen Antoinette is expected to roll out sensational details and an original cast of characters.

The focus will be the leader of the small group One Mind Ministries, which police call a cult. Queen Antoinette ordered followers to starve a 16-month-old boy in 2007 because he didn’t say “Amen” at breakfast, prosecutors say in court records. After the boy died and resurrection prayers failed, two members measured him and bought a suitcase, according to prosecutors. The body was put inside, with mothballs and fabric softeners to mask the odor.

Four core members drove to Philadelphia, where they wheeled the suitcase until finding a place to stay. Then things got really strange.

I think we’ll stop right there, thank you very much.

You need to read the story to get my point, but here is a rather lengthy chunk that offers some details about the leader of One Mind Ministries, the first in a series of mini-profiles. Note the use of facts to describe the group and its style, with crucial details provided that point to the strangeness that is mixed in with the religious details that may sound rather normal.

Queen Antoinette: The 41-year-old, also known as Toni Sloan, led One Mind out of a Baltimore rowhouse. She is charged with murder, remains in jail and will represent herself. When asked during a brief phone conversation how she was doing, she pleasantly said, “Blessed,” reflecting the appeal that drew people to her. Queen Antoinette wanted to discuss her case during an in-person interview, but state prison officials denied a request from The Washington Post to interview her in jail.

Inside the rowhouse, which had Scriptures on the walls, she led Bible studies, according to court records. One former member, Tiffany Smith, said Queen Antoinette used verses to justify smoking marijuana. Queen Antoinette also became convinced that the young boy, Javon Thompson, had developed a rebellious spirit that needed cleansing, according to court records.

So, do you want one more detail? Here’s the start of next mini-profile:

Ria Ramkissoon: Ramkissoon, called Princess Marie by the group, is the deceased child’s mother. Prosecutors think that she was brainwashed and allowed her to plead guilty to a child-abuse charge. They also promised her that they would drop the charge if Javon rises from the dead.

Who needs labels? This is one case in which the reporters just need to describe the details and let the story tell itself — even if that is rather frightening.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Once again, this is the response for a post that praises the press.

    So, should we stop praising the good?

  • Jettboy

    “trust me”

    Why should I? Apparently why use labels when facts can help us decide for ourselves? The word “cult” should be stricken from the English vocabulary no matter why it might be used.

    “rejected her family’s Hindu religion, became a devout Christian”

    Sounds perfectly acceptable labeling. She was Hindu and now is a devout Christian, even if not YOUR (or for that matter MY) kind of Christian.

  • Chip Smith

    Once again, this is the response for a post that praises the press.

    So, should we stop praising the good?

    Not at all. There just is not much to say that you didn’t already cover. I would never have seen this story if you didn’t write about it here, so I appreciate your post.


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