Witches and the Media: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been and Will Continue to Be...
Article ID: 2724
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 6,919
Times Read: 11,043
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 12th. 2000
Times Viewed: 11,043
This is a topic near and dear to my heart! When I first became friends with Fritz and Wren they were just beginning their activities on the pagan web as the founders of the internet presence of The Witches' League for Public Awareness. For reasons too numerous to mention here, they later founded their own non-profit organization, The Witches' Voice. The rest, to put it mildly, is history. Being asked to join their efforts has had a profound effect on my life-not only because of their friendship but because this work has allowed me to watch the changing shape of the pagan community and its relationship with the rest of the world.
My own involvement came about because of my work as a freelance reviewer and film critic. At that time, witches were just beginning to become the darlings of Hollywood, beginning with The Craft. In recent years witches have made their way onto primetime shows (Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and selected episodes of shows like The X-Files, Millennium and Judging Amy) and many popular films (Practical Magic, Sleepy Hollow and the much-hyped and way-scary, in my opinion, Blair Witch Project). And television's love affair with witchcraft goes beyond the fictional, to news shows and documentaries like 48 Hours, 20/20, Paradise Lost and various specials on The Discovery Channel.
Because, for better or worse, television has replaced reading and other modes of learning in this country, it would be difficult for many of us to sort out which of our dearly-held political beliefs or social opinions were not first introduced to us by hearing them on television. For those of us who regularly read news papers and news magazines, the same can be said, although reading allows ideas to enter our brains in a way that is vastly different from the sensory stimulation of television. Newspapers, due to falling sales and subscriptions, have also changed their look and feel to mimic their biggest competitors: tabloids, television and the Internet. They have become more visual, more likely to feature short quotations and sound bytes, and, unfortunately, more likely to sensationalize news stories, and more likely to rely on conjecture, opinion or recycled "research" than on actual facts.
As an example, there was recently a news story about a teacher who was suspended because she gave the book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham, to one of her students. In one news story I read, the reporter quoted the parents of the student involved as saying the book contained "satanic rites" and passages about "daggers for sacrifice, " as well as pentagrams, spells, etc. Now, those of us who have read this book or who are familiar with the author's other works know there is no mention whatsoever of satanism or "sacrifice" with daggers! But did this reporter bother to even look at the book in question? Did she bother to interview someone who was familiar with the book, or to contact the publishers? No; she merely quoted the parents, whose objection to this book were based on their own ignorance, fear and prejudice. To be fair, this same reporter, in a later article, included more information about what the actually contained, as opposed to what these parents said it contained, and provided some quotations from people who did not think this book was harmful or even inappropriate. The issue to me seems to be that there is an objection to introducing students to paganism; but interestingly the school authorities involved are attempting to turn this into a "separation of church and state" issue... I wonder if this would have been the case if the book in question had been the Bible, or the Torah...
My point here is, journalists these days are not simply interested in getting the facts. They are also under pressure to attract readers. All things being equal, a story about a teacher trying to seduce a student into devil worship is gonna sell a lot more papers than a teacher providing a book to a student who requests it, only to have that student give the book to another student, whose parents object to its content. I personally feel it is inappropriate for the teacher to have given the book to a student. I have taught at the college level for years and some of my students have asked me about learning more about paganism (whether because they saw my pentacle and asked about it, or they took a class in Witchcraft in Film and Literature and wanted to know more about "real" witches). But even though I put some of my books on reserve for them in the campus library, lending them books for personal use is probably inappropriate while they are still in my class. And a college-age student is not subject to the same sorts of protections under the law as someone under the age of consent-not to mention the difference in environment of a college campus versus a public school. (This is a whole other essay which I probably should write some time soon!)
We have all read articles and seen news stories on TV that focused on the sensational over the actual. We have all seen movies and shows that thought the way to portray witches was with over-the-top special effects and demon possession and bathtubs full of blood. We are hurt by this, because we know that our religion, in all its forms and colors, as practiced by a hugely, wonderfully diverse community, is a gentle, loving, life-affirming path, a path with thousands of years of history and mythology and lore behind it. It is not easy living with this cognitive dissonance: knowing that what witches really do would probably be pretty dull to those who want to portray us as power-hungry, seductive (or scary), dagger-wielding devil worshippers who drink blood from baby skulls and have wild naked orgies at the full moon and cause crops to fail and make men impotent and women infertile and whose sole purpose is to dominate people with our black magic... um... sorry, I got carried away there for a moment.
Know this: truth will always prevail. And it is becoming increasingly common that the media presents both sides of the story, or does some actual research about modern witches before printing (or filming) their story. If we take the time to acquaint ourselves with their most frequent misunderstandings of errors, we are better equipped to take a stand against inaccurate portrayals.
But also know this: old archetypes die hard. The evil witch, the old hag with warts and wild hair and a hackle-raising cackle... or the good witch, the sweet, wise old healer who lives in the woods with her cats and her herb cupboard... or the seductress, in flowing black clothes and with sparkling violet eyes, who lures men to their demise with magic... or the manipulative warlock, who preys on fear and creates a glamour with his occult jewelry and booming voice and piercing stare... or the goddess-worshipping child of nature, who chants and sings and dances to raise energy and heal the planet... or the weekend warrior who drums and howls in the woods, reaching back to his roots to find the wild man within... all these stereotypes are alive and well, in the media and all around us... they form a tapestry of myth and imagery and there is a little bit of truth in each one...
Personally, I do not think it is worthwhile to get angry at a fictional portrayal which is pure fantasy. Some of even wear pointy black hats and warts at Hallowe'en parties to poke fun at this silly persona. But on Samhain, we take our rites very seriously. To be exposed to ridicule by the media on this sacred holiday is to us a form of blasphemy. And when the practices and beliefs of our religion are somehow jumbled in with popular urban legends (like the fictitious satanic ritual abuse scare), it is hard to know where to begin to sort it out for those who don't know the difference. Forget the old hag shoving Hansel and Gretel into the oven; it is far more damaging to see modern witches portrayed as people who dress in normal street clothes by day and sacrifice yuppie lawyers by night (well, actually I wouldn't mind seeing a movie like that ;~0!!!). Seriously, it is where fact and fiction mingle and become confusing, when elements of truth are compromised by stereotype, when sensationalism threatens to create panic, it is then and there we must be most vigilant.
If you are involved in pagan activism, and you try to correct stereotypes about modern witchcraft, be sure to remain reasonable on this point. Protesting the green hag on the broomstick is a waste of time; but making sure the public knows we don't proselytize or try to convert others to witchcraft, much less practice human sacrifice or worship Satan, is, sadly, something we all still need to worry about... at least in some parts of the world.
Talking to the media, or writing letters, can seem daunting. There are lots of great tips for doing this sort of work in our White Pages section. The most practical form of advice I can give is twofold:
In my experience, I have communicated with many journalists whom I respected for their willingness to learn as much as they could about what witches really do, and who were willing to correct misinformation. I have also met a whole range of disreputable hacks who have done everything from rudely cut me off on radio interviews and say "the only reason you're here is to answer my questions!" when I attempted to address something inaccurate that had been said earlier; to radio hosts who acted really interested in the historical and mythological implications of Samhain before the show began, only to go on the air and say "Well, here it is Hallowe'en and we're talking with A REAL, LIVE WITCH!!!"
- First, know what you are talking about. Some journalists may ask questions that are confusing and feeling confident with the subject helps you deal with this. For example, learn how to explain the difference between witchcraft and Wicca. Remember to say you cannot speak for all witches because we are all individuals (reporters love to get a quote that applies to all witches but it's just not possible to do this). Learn about the actual history of modern witchcraft, and how to separate it from the widespread myths of modern witchcraft (the Burning Times, etc.) Find a comfortable way (for you) to describe what magic is. Know how to explain what the pentacle stands for. Learn how to explain the Law of Three in simple terms. And never be afraid to say "I don't know" or "I'm not sure I understand your question."
- Secondly, know that not every journalist wants the facts. Some of them want fiction, or sensationalism, or dirt. If they try to steer you down that road (for example, asking about witches working skyclad, or sex magic, or love spells), don't get flustered. Explain every witch practices witchcraft differently based on their own tradition and their own individual personality; some work skyclad, others don't. But all witches, as far as most of us know, believe in the Law of Three, and that all acts of magic we perform must be carefully considered and done for the good of all. Another good response to an inappropriate question, "Could you be more specific about what you want to know about that?" or "What is it about that that interests you specifically?" Then the reporter either has to reveal their own ignorance about the topic and expose their motivation (i.e., sensationalist soundbyte), or they will manage to clarify the question both for you and for their audience, and thereby show there is more depth to these matters than often meets the eye.
It's getting better; it really is.
But the road is rough sometimes...
aka Albion Summerisle Morrison
Media Coordinator, The Witches' Voice
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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