How to Educate the Media
Article ID: 2725
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 6,312
Times Read: 6,424
Author: Diana Rajchel [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 12th. 2000
Times Viewed: 6,424
Media personnel often feel flummoxed by me, I'm sure of it. I practice a "weirdo" religion and I choose an outspoken method of expressing it: letters to the editor, phone calls and occasional reminders of the Associated Press style book. When they call me during October for rent-a-witch season, I leave messages on their machines with a booklist and a recommendation they do some research before they call me. (Most will not follow up). On the occasions when I have given interviews, they often become frustratedI often arrange to also keep a tape of the interview for myself that I make and I identify point-blank slanted questions. If the questions can be twisted, I will insist they rephrase it before I will answer. My degree in mass communications/journalism has proved rewarding when speaking for local pagans and infuriating to the local media.
Believe it or not, I actually do not approach journalists and all other media personnel with an us-versus-them mentality. Way back when I started college, before I answered my pagan calling, I intended to be a journalist, to be one of "them." I never changed majors after I discovered I would not take that path because mass communications has much more flexibility than I gave it credit for. As one of the people who have had to scramble at deadlines (and who still does while writing for different pagan publications) I can sympathize with some of the causes of misinformation. The realities of journalistic life are more complex than this-group-normal this-group-not-must-persecute. The responses comes from a complex situation of time as a commodity and decisions based on ownership. The best way to educate a media person about the realities of paganism and presenting the truth about it to the word is to know how media personnel learn information and what factors actively prevent accuracy.
First, let's divide media into its most recognizable classifications: print, sound and vision.
Newspapers are the publications that affect our daily lives because of the frequency of their distribution. Most communities I have lived in view the paper as an extension of their community and their voice in the community. Most papers cater to this viewpoint, offering space to local advertisers and investing a large portion of the paper to local stories and events.
Paradoxically, the majority of daily newspapers are owned by national corporate chains. That means that many papers do have constraining corporate interests, frequent turnovers in personnel and the people you meet who are seeking a story are under lots of pressure.
Magazines are written from a specific slant, and are usually owned in chains or groups of publications. Magazine writing is not about objective journalism. They are designed to cater to a specific lifestyle demographic; any reporting on paganism will be influenced predictably by the likely view of the magazine's target demographic. In my opinion, there should be no surprises as to the outcome of a magazine interview.
Radio: Radio stations are in a similar position to those of newspapers. Again, they are often constrained by the owner of the station. Exorbitant fees are required to purchase a broadcasting license and the FCC limits the number that can be owned at any given time, thus the frequent swapping in licensing. Most radio stations are owned by one wealthy person, and the staff must answer to the demands of this individual as well as the demands of local advertisers. The business community has the most powerful effect on both public and commercial radio stations; much of the information distributed over sound waves is done in five minute segments to best reach a demographic of people driving to work at a specific time. If advertisers dislike those individuals hearing information about alternative religions, the radio station that explores the topic too intently may lose advertisers or underwriters.
Television: Television comes from much the same situation as radio, with a longer period of time to expose messages to an audience with a decreasing attention span. All well-recognized broadcast networks are owned by overhead corporations with an interest in controlling media, rather than an interest in distributing information. This leads to a battle between pleasing the owner, drawing heavy advertisers and splicing information into short, understandable fragments that do not challenge the viewer too much: a challenged viewer will change the channel.
This by no means can introduce the reader to the full complexity of the media distribution world. It is too easy, and not accurate enough to say that all forms of news media (barring the Internet) are now controlled by beauracratic machines. There are still independent media groups and independent-minded people working for the larger corporations who still find ways to challenge the informational status quo. Just understand that far more goes on than even the person interviewing the pagans sees, and between those problems and the cultural filters about pagans that the interviewer may already be wearing, breaking any wall to social change and acceptance will be steep.
Media has become complex, and because of that, it's hard to direct an interviewer's attention to the deeper realities of pagan religions. These individuals are sent out to find the "story", and must research and interview for that story usually within a 24 hour period, sometimes less. A journalist may on Monday morning become an expert on petrochemicals and the next day research the dirty world of poodle-grooming. Paganism is just one more subject that these people must skim the surface. Taking the time to research heavily into a complex religious movement would take either a grant from a large corporation or a desire to end up in the unemployment lines.
I have little difficulty seeing why so many of the stories covering paganism have been uniformly unresearched thus far: the authors of these special interest pieces have already gone on to the stories for the next deadline long after our community sends in the corrections to their fact-checking. Beyond commenting to a colleague over any "strange" behavior noted in the interview, that journalist will have long forgotten the pagan religion he/she had to deliver information on a few days before.
Armed with this knowledge, I propose a slight shift in the way that information is delivered to representatives from media sources. Although the academics of the pagan community may cringe at some of these ideas, I present them for those who feel that cultural legitimacy is important for pagan religions, and who prefer a faster route to guaranteed civil rights and public acceptance: (please note that I have worked in PR).
Although not popular within the pagan community, there are legal recourses for mis-reporting who and what we are. Slander and libel laws protect religions as they do any other individual or group. I am surprised at how little use we have made of these legal protections. People claiming that Wiccans kill babies are liable for defamation, particularly if they are educated and know that such statements are not true. There is less ignorance than some would think about who and what pagans are; if we fight for those deliberately rekindling an ignorant state, we may make more progress towards legitimacy and ensured legal protection.
- Make the research simple. Send them two or three FAQ sheets, such as the excellent ones on The Witch's Voice. If you feel adventurous and can obtain a home video camera, perhaps make a ten minute tape introducing pagan religion and explaining what it is in very simple terms. Short and light on the reading goes over well for people on a deadline.
- Prepare yourself for an interview. Jot down what you think you will be asked and different ways the question could be angled. Think through responses beforehand. Make them short, simple, and quotable. Although I hate it as much as the next person, talking in sound bytes -- four to seven word sentences -- preserves accuracy and prevents misquoting or slanting of an article.
- Record the interview yourself. Keep a tape player, etc. just as the reporter is likely to do. Granting prior review is considered unethical within the journalistic community, and it is an ethic to respect. If we protest censorship of our religion, we have no right to ask for it over a profession. However, there is nothing wrong with keeping your own records of an interview.
- Familiarize yourself with the Associated Press style book. This is a rather dry book of words, spellings and grammatic regulations that forms the professional standard for journalistic writing. I've found it a powerful little book, particularly since in the front a few pages are dedicated to non-biased language. Descriptions such as "self-proclaimed Wiccan" and "self-styled witch" are actually violations of AP standards according to their own rules against biased language. I have found that pointing this violation of standards out to a newspaper or radio station often gives quick results.
The media is not out to get us, although they do present inaccurate information. For all the wish-lists we may make, the responsibility for spreading intelligent and accurate information about ourselves is in our own hands. Vigilance in media handling is just as necessary to us as vigilance in protecting or obtaining our religious freedom.
Many of these sources are not reflective of the changing face of media, but are geared towards a world sans Internet (which is changing all styles of communication). Although dated (scavenged from professor's cleaning pile), this information builds a foundation for the reality of the modern media for those interested in pursuing an understanding for their work on pagan public relations. Goldstein, Norm. ed. The Associated Press Style book and Libel Manual. The Associated Press. New York, NY 1995
Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality: the politics of news media. St .Martin's Press. 1993.
Chaffee, Steven H. and Michael J. Petrick. Using the Mass Media: Communication Problems in American Society.McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1975. Cathcart, Robert and Gumpert, Gary. InterMedia: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World. Oxford University Press. New York, 1979.
Location: San Francisco, California
Author's Profile: To learn more about Diana Rajchel - Click HERE
Bio: Diana Rajchel Olsen is a freelance writer who lives in Southern Minnesota with her husband, Nate. A recent graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, she is waiting patiently for her husband to finish obtaining his degree and licensing so she can leave for somewhere warmer. She is a second degree priestess and elder in Shadowmoon coven, and the web writer for Medea's Chariot at chttp://Nexus.MNIC.net/~rajchd. While waiting for Nate to graduate, she writes for Shadowzine and several other pagan and alternative magazines. She is fascinated by paganism as both a spiritual and intellectual movement, and is eager to observe the course it takes in society.
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