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Pagans and the Press |
or, How to Get Your Local Rag to Take Your Religion Seriously
There you are, nose buried in your local newspaper. Suddenly, something strikes you the wrong way. Maybe it's something small, like a quote referring to an unpleasant female as a "witch." Maybe it's something big, like a columnist trashing Wiccans as Satan-worshiping criminals.
You get mad. Maybe you think about reacting in some way, like writing a letter. "Nah, " you decide, "they won't print it anyway. They'll think I'm some kind of nut." You're wrong.
I'm a Witch who writes about the Craft as portrayed in the media, andI'm painfully aware of how far we have to go toward public acceptance. But I'm also a card-carrying newspaper editor (complete with a journalism degree, appropriately called a B.S.), and I may be able to offer some help.
Newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and Web publishers want to hear from their audience. Readers, listeners and viewers offer an index of how well editors are succeeding at keeping them interested. The audience is why we do our jobs. Besides helping to pay our salaries, they notice mistakes, and expose us to alternative points of view . It's a vital interaction, and any good media outlet will acknowlege it; at my paper, we also go out of our way to print letters criticizing the paper and its work.
Editors need to hear that Pagans are out there. They need to know what Witches are and do. They need to know that we are paying attention to what they publish, and that we are a legitimate religion deserving of respect. And you don't have to come flinging out of the broom closet to tell them about it.
Express yourself One way to let a Pagan voice be heard is a letter to the editor. But editors get lots of letters. Here are some ways to ensure yours gets published instead of tossed out:
Here's a real-life sample of how this might be done. A friend was amused by a report in the Chicago Tribune of a church in nearby Evanston, who objected to Halloween celebrations in public schools because they allegedly taught witchcraft and Druidism.
- Be positive. As Cassius Julianus writes in his valuable pamphlet, 50 Things You Can Do to Advance Pagan Religion, "You would be amazed at how many Christians write to magazines and newspapers, commenting on articles. Their voice is usually the only one the media gets to hear. Most Christians write hostile and complaining letters ... you can provide a positive counterpoint by praising good work, or gently pointing out things that need to be mentioned."
- Be current. When writing, pick a topic or approach that has to do with the news. It's best if you react to something that's happened recently, especially something that's appeared in the paper.
- Be brief. 250 words is the max at my paper. Even at papers that don't have a word limit, shorter letters will get printed more often than long ones. More importantly, short letters will attract more readers.
- Be temperate. Most papers won't print long letters, personal attacks on non-public figures, or theological arguments. In addition, your opinion will be much more effectively expressed if you back up your points with evidence and keep your tone calm. Express emotion by all means, but don't stop there; use logic, too.
- Be credible. Sign it and if possible include a phone number for verification. You don't need to use your real name, but if you pick a fake name, use something "normal, " not Crystalthighs Thunderbunny. (Jane Raeburn, for instance, is not my real name; I chose it because it sounds conventional, yet contains a version of the name I use in circle.) The idea is to prove to the newspaper and its readership that Pagans are responsible, bill-paying people just like Mr. & Mrs. America, except with a different religion. Every little bit helps.
He could take the matter up directly with the church, but that wouldn't likely get him very far, because it doesn't sound like this is a group that's open to having its beliefs challenged. But a letter to the editor could open some eyes, if written with intelligence and perspective. It might go something like this:
"As a Wiccan, I would like to express my solidarity with the _____ Church in objecting to the teaching of religion in public school. I would certainly object if anyone used my children's educational time to teach Christianity or any other faith.
"However, I would like to clear up some misunderstandings regarding modern Witchcraft." Then a paragraph about how we don't worship Satan or eat children.
"If the school district was indeed teaching Paganism, I will certainly join the church in condemning such a practice. However, most Halloween customs in this culture have little to do with the Pagan holiday of Samhain, a serious occasion at which we remember the dead and express our hopes for the afterlife."
If it doesn't get printed within two or three weeks, call and ask for the editorial page editor and politely inquire about it (remembering, of course, to use the name you signed!). Even if you can't get it printed, you can impress the editor with your civility and seriousness. And he or she may treat the next Pagan letter better.
Giving interviews Now let's suppose the shoe is on the other foot. Your local news outlet has found out you're a Pagan and wants to do a story about you. (This is particularly common in October. "Hey, it's almost Halloween!" an assigning editor says, beckoning to some hapless reporter. "Go find a witch!")
If you're going to give your time and energy to a media outlet, you deserve to know that your views will be considered fairly. You don't need the reporter or readers to agree with you, just to take you seriously. By doing some simple research and preparation, you can ensure that your efforts will help benefit your Craft.
- You have a right to say no. You have every right to refuse such a request. But if you can grant the interview without jeopardizing your job, family, or coven, you might be able to convince a few people in your community that yours is a religion that deserves respect. This depends a great deal on how you present yourself.
- Visuals matter. If the media outlet is a visual one, try to get the person behind the camera to present you as a "normal" person. This means avoiding the stereotyped shot of some wacky-looking, jewelry-bedecked person in a robe, standing behind an cluttered altar and brandishing a wand or athame.
This will be tough; Photographers are trained to look for interesting visual elements and Pagans try to make their altars visually interesting. Trust me: No matter how nice your altar, robes and jewelry look, they will look silly in print or on television.
One way around this issue might be to ask to have the photos taken in some attractive outdoor location. "This is my church, " you might say, pointing to a nearby tree or beach.
If the photographer is someone you know and trust, or insists on depicting magical gear, try posing with one special item, preferably not an athame or sword (you're trying to make the point that Witches don't hurt others!). Dress conventionally and attractively " you're representing all the Craft, not just yourself.
Even if the interview does not involve a photograph, it's worth taking some pains to present yourself well. Print and radio reporters often introduce the subjects of stories with a brief description. "Windsong is a red-haired Witch who lives in a well-kept suburban apartment. She wears a silver pentagram around her neck and ..."
- Be patient with the basics. Wicca and Paganism have been around a long time. Nonetheless, when communicating with "mainstream" media, you still need to make the points that we are not Satanists, do not abuse children or animals, and do not wish to convert Christians. Be patient with this and do not take it lightly.
- Respect other religions. You may be legitimately angry at the religion of your origin, but it's not productive to let this show in the media. Instead, simply emphasize that what you do is not evil or hateful, just different. Keep your emotions in check, even when you wind up with a novice reporter who asks, "So do you, like, cast spells?" or a cynical columnist who asks if you're going to turn him into a frog.
- Counter-investigate. If the interviewer is working on a more in-depth piece, he or she may ask to attend a ritual. Of course you'll want to check with everyone in your group before allowing this. But you'll also want to check out the reporter's work to make sure you're not laying yourself and your religion open for ridicule or denunciation.
Begin by asking the reporter for samples of previous stories. Better yet, check your local library's back files of the publication in question, and look for the reporter's bylines. Look out for sarcasm or a "debunking" tone, and especially for evidence that the reporter has misused subjects' trust in the past.
On the positive side, look for past experience with in-depth religion reporting " not just "building the church roof" stories, but examinations of different groups' beliefs. Another good sign is a history of writing sensitively about people who are out of the mainstream.
Ask detailed questions about the kind of story the reporter has in mind. Is it a quick feature on someone quirky? A serious examination of alternative religion? A cheap attempt to capitalize on rumors about Satanic kidnappings? I've seen Witches interviewed for all of these, with about the results you'd expect.
When you're done getting answers from the reporter, find out the name of the assigning editor, then call that person and politely ask the same questions. If there's any difference of opinion about the preconceived tone and direction of the piece, it's usually the editor's version that gets published.
And finally, consider the nature of the publication, program or section in which you're to appear. If the National Enquirer calls, tell them you're busy tracking Elvis. If your local TV station wants to feature you on its end-of-the-week roundup of local loonies, politely decline.
When problems arise If you as a Pagan or Witch become involved in a public controversy, there are many organizations that can help you present the case for your religion. The Witches' Voice is one; here are some others:
Covenant of the Goddess, P.O. Box 1226, Berkeley, CA 94701
Wiccan-Pagan Press Alliance, P.O. Box 1392, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
Lady Liberty League, PO Box 219, Mt. Horeb, WI 53572
Witches Against Religious Discrimination, P.O. Box 1392, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
Witches League for Public Awareness, P.O. Box 8736, Salem, MA 01971-8736
Pagan Educational Network, P.O. Box 1364, Bloomington, IN 47402
Wiccan Information Network, P.O. Box 2422, Main P.O., Vancouver, BC Canada V6B 3W7
Church and School of Wicca, P.O. Box 1502, New Bern, NC 28563
Pagan Alliance of Central Texas (P.A.C.T.), P.O. Box 12041, Austin, TX 78711
Universal Federation of Pagans, P.O. Box 674884, Marietta, GA 30067
American Civil Liberties Union, 132 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036
Coalition for Religious Freedom, 5400 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria, VA 22304
Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916
Sources: Bils, Jeffrey, "Banned Book Week, " Chicago Tribune, Sept. 28, 1994.
Julianus, Cassius. 50 Things You Can Do to Advance Pagan Religion. Invictus Aeternum, P.O. Box 6222, Nashua NH 03063.
Electronic communications with Brendan Tripp of Eschaton Books, Chicago, and Roger of the Church of Iron Oak.
About the author I am Jane, a newspaper editor and Witch. I lives in Maine and administer the Maine Pagan Resource Page and the Maine Pagan Mailing List. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the Beltane 1995 edition of the Pagan Muse & World Report.
I collect news of interest to the Pagan and Wiccan community and distribute it in a quarterly column, "Jane's Tidings, " which appears in some of the finer Pagan magazines. Send all Pagan- and Wiccan-related news clippings to:
P.O. Box 64
Portland, ME 04112
or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
If your favorite publication doesn't carry my column, and you think it should, send this address to the editor.
Thanks and blessings!
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