The Demon Of Click Bait: Daily Telegraph Sensationalizes UK's 'Boom' In Christian Exorcisms

Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?

A hackneyed phrase, I admit. But the question it poses is relevant to the newspaper business. What comes first, advertising or content? Do you tailor your content to generate the greatest number of readers (or ‘hits’ or ‘clicks’ on-line), or do you generate content that attracts readers seeking balanced reporting? Do you seek advertisers first, or readers whom advertisers seek to reach?

This question loomed large in my mind as I read a July 5, 2017, article in the Daily Telegraph entitled “'Astonishing' rise in demand for exorcisms putting mental health at risk, report finds”. In this story, the Telegraph has chosen to sensationalize an item rather than report faithfully.

The title of the piece recycles the war between science and religion so beloved by bores. Not hirsute, feral pigs, mind you, but the dreary sort of folk one comes across in the chattering classes. The suggestion raised in the title is softened slightly by the lede -- moving the problem from the war between science and religion to the war between science and the religion of immigrants. It states:

An "astonishing" rise in harmful Christian exorcisms is being partly driven by migrant communities, a think tank has warned.

The article then purports to describe a paper by this London-based think tank. It states that researchers at Theos:

“found that experts were concerned that the "booming industry" in exorcisms was putting Christians' mental health at risk. The report, which examines the relationship between Christianity and mental health, said: "Exorcisms are now a booming industry in the UK, with a number of interviewees noting the astonishing increase in demand – often, as one noted, in defiance of any actual rules or procedures put in place by any church."

The author briefly gets lost in the weeds and confuses her arguments, highlighting the problem of a rise in exorcisms performed by churches serving the burgeoning immigrant communities and exorcisms in the Church of England. 

The author writes that this industry was in part "driven by immigrant communities and Pentecostal churches which are very open about their exorcism services." But she offers no comments or quotes from members of these communities, switching the focus back to the Church of England, with comments from a CoE spokesman and a line pulled from the report concerning a rise in interest in deliverance ministries in the Church of England.

The core message of the article is the reporter’s assertion that exorcisms are harmful to one’s mental health:

Research found that interviewees, including mental health chaplains and other Christians working in mental health, said that "in the vast majority of cases, the person in question was suffering with mental health issues which required psychiatric assistance."

Taken on its own terms, this is a weak article.

It does not define exorcisms -- allowing the reader to bring to the story their own notions of what is being described. The story’s reliance on illustrations from commercial movies widens the disconnect. It does not speak to anyone performing exorcisms. It does not differentiate between the Church of England and independent churches. It does not explore if this is an immigrant-only phenomenon or one moving into the mainstream of British life. It offers no background on exorcism or the deliverance ministry. It would have been helpful to note that each Church of England diocese should have an exorcist commissioned by the bishop to address these issues.

However, the article moves from weak to poor when the report itself is read. The Theos paper cited in the story is not about exorcism but religion and mental health. It is a sober, balanced and well researched paper -- and has only one page devoted to exorcisms. The paper further states:

Jesus’ command was to heal the sick and to cast out demons. The two are not synonymous. Just as for physical ailments we recommend seeking medical assistance, so it must be for mental illness. This is not to discount the possibility of demonic attacks, but it is to apply caution, in order to ensure that we are best looking after the needs of sufferers. (p 24)

The subject addressed in the Theos paper is important. And it is worth reading the entire document if you are interested in the intersection of mental health care and religion. What the paper is not is a jeremiad against exorcism in the name of science.

What then do we have here? Ignorance or malpractice?

The Telegraph could well have not understood the paper’s implications and was bored by the subject matter. And all that could be gleaned was the minor excursus on deliverance ministries in immigrant communities. Or, the Telegraph could have chosen to compete for tabloid readers and sensationalize a story beyond all recognition.

Either way the issues and arguments raised by the Theos report were not fairly presented by the article, and the craft of journalism was debased.