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Pagans and the Press
Care And Feeding Of Your Local Journalist
by Nicole J. LeBoeuf

A recent media incident makes clear that even the Pagan population, level-headed as we usually are, occasionally overreacts. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, we certainly get full marks in that department. But it's also said that attitude is everything, and our attitude could stand a little improvement.

No doubt, regulars of Wren's Nest saw Ms. Michelle Brutlag's article (in the Evansville Courier & Press) entitled "Black cats get extra protection for Halloween." You may well have been part of the follow-up: "Good Morning: Witches use cyber space to make point in hurry." It was a rallying success for witches everywhere. Journalist makes mistake, journalist receives tons of e-mail, journalist makes amends, and Wicca triumphs over the Media Engine.

But I was a little ashamed at the way we went about it.

"Some letters were polite, and some were not. Some offered to help educate me; some just wanted to blame me. Some were friendly, but some contained threats. It's been an entertaining and enlightening few days. Thank you for the mail."

Rudeness? Blame? Threats? I'm shocked. It's fortunate Ms. Brutlag took the deluge so well, and was able to end her article with a smile. Threatening or otherwise mistreating Ms. Brutlag was inexcusable! We should be educating, not abusing journalists.

In the hopes of avoiding further unpleasantness, I would like to humbly offer a few suggestions for how to deal with media inaccuracies.

  • Take a deep breath and count to ten.

You don't want to regret for days the angry words that took you moments to fire off. Before responding in anger to a newspaper or web site article, it's best to allow a cooling off period.

For instance, you might have read a Halloween article posted at a certain web page and rolled your eyes at its host of ickies: devil-worship accusations, "Samhain Lord of Evil" allusions, human sacrifice reports... Sing along. You know the words. I certainly had the "oh no, not again" reaction myself. My first impulse was to send all my anger, hurt, and exasperation right back at the author whose words had evoked them.

But I was in the office. Browsing for pleasure had to be done in snatches between bouts of Legitimate Corporate Web Design. When at last I actually had time to sign the guestbook and e-mail the site owner, most of my ire had cooled, and I was beginning to have second thoughts: "You are representing your religion, you know." "Anger builds fences, not friendships." "Maybe, just maybe, she doesn't know..."

So with that in mind, I wrote her. She wrote me back. I wrote her back again. We're probably on our fifth round by now. Turned out, she didn't write that article herself, and she isn't out to get us. She told me she has Wiccan friends and she loves them dearly. She went to great lengths to assure me that she doesn't want to misrepresent anyone. And what's more, she even wished me a blessed Harvest.

And she removed the article from her website... even if she also removed every Pagan signature in her Guestbook correcting it. I remain hopeful that she will respond positively to requests for a retraction.

  • Don't make assumptions.

Not everyone who slanders Wicca is Christian. (Remember Dr. Laura?) Not every Christian slanders Wicca. And bad press isn't always deliberate slander. Remember, the media is not The Enemy. News writers are not Evangelical Spreaders of Lies.

Of course, not everyone is good and kind and well-intentioned, either. Vicious journalists do exist, and they're out there. But they're kind of like witches who sacrifice black cats: the exception, not the rule. Simple misunderstanding is much more likely than deliberate calumny.

If you must assume, do like the American Judicial Ideal: Assuming that everyone's innocent until proven guilty.

  • Ascertain whether the offending article is meant to be news or opinion.

Several months ago, after Fort Hood Open Circle had been raising congressional eyebrows (and temperatures) for a good three sabbats, the Salt Lake Tribune ran an article by Robert Kirby about those witches in the armed forces. The eye-of-newt and spells-not-bombs quips, not to mention the sniggering tone of the whole piece, went right over the top. So, understandably enough, plenty of us were plenty irked by Mr. Kirby's nonstop mockery. We wrote a gazillion letters to the editor, complaining about Mr. Kirby's sloppy news journalism. "What a biased, insulting article!" we protested. "Get your facts straight!"

Unfortunately, we hadn't taken the time to get our own facts straight. Granted, the Salt Lake Tribune's web site isn't very clear about such things, but it wasn't impossible to see that Mr. Kirby's article was, in fact, an editorial.

Make sure you know the context before you fire off your complaints. Otherwise you run the risk of severely embarassing yourself.

  • If the article is an editorial, it will be biased. It reflects the writer's opinion.

Disparaging editorialists are like anyone else with a loud and unsavory impression of Paganism. Their opinion quite possibly reflects misinformation, not malice. Give them the facts. Cite some sources. Offer some interesting reading. Offer to stay in touch should the writer have any questions. Do not, under any circumstances, offer to stick silver pins in the knees of a wax likeness of the author should s/he not publish a full retraction and announcement of his/her conversion to Wicca.

Threats, whether physical or magical, are inappropriate.

Of course, if the author is, like Mr. Kirby, deliberately poking fun, then treat him like a school-yard bully. Try not to give him/her the reaction s/he wants, and try not to justify his/her ribbing by overreacting all over the Letters To The Editor page. A well-written response makes it clear to the readership who's out of line (the editorialist) and who's "asking for it" (not you).

And if it actually turns out that the author was intentionally lying, and refuses, even after every benefit of the doubt has been granted, to take back his/her claims that your religion is actually the first arm of the Anti-Christ Army -- take action. Go over his/her head. Complain to the appropriate departments. And let the offending author know you're doing this. Consequences don't just happen to other people.

Just be absolutely sure that such action is called for before you take it. We want to build bridges, not burn them.

  • If the article is a news feature, it might not reflect the writer's opinion at all.

Good news journalism requires that the writer's opinion take a back seat while researched facts and quoted interviews take precedence. You can reasonably assume that the reporter is presenting information, not grinding an ax.

If there's a mistake, and it's not in quotes, then it was the news journalist who got the facts wrong. Just like with editorialists, assume misinformation. Point the writer towards the facts and ask that s/he publish an "errata" article correcting these mistakes in full sight of his/her audience.

If the mistakes are in quotes, it's the interviewees that are ignorant. Of course, the journalist isn't necessarily without blame. News reporters are supposed to present a balanced story. They shouldn't be taking one source's word on faith. Instead, they ought to conduct further interviews with experts, and maybe visit the library.

But they should never be blamed for sentiments expressed "within the quote marks." They are only responsible for how the quotes are presented.

Ms. Brutlag's article is a perfect example of this distinction. She did write an unbalanced article that gave too much weight to her interviewees' unresearched claims, but she was not the one making those claims.

" 'It's always black cats, ' [Kay] Lant said. 'There's people who practice witchcraft. It's sad, but it's a fact of life.' "

.... "[Patty] Johns said a woman called her to say black cats are sometimes used in Satanic rituals, especially around Halloween."

Remember, these weren't Ms. Brutlag's words. She was not accusing Witches, Wiccans, or Satanists of animal torture. Those accusations were made by Ms. Lant and Ms. Johns, whose opinions are not Ms. Brutlag's fault. I cannot emphasize this enough! Attacking the journalist for what her sources say is like shooting the messenger for bringing bad news.

But the messenger did fail to get the full story. Ms. Brutlag should have asked herself questions like, "Okay, is Ms. Lant right about witches? Is Ms. Johns right about Satanists?" Then, in order to answer those questions, she should have conducted a follow-up interview with a representative witch. She ought to have asked the police whether they were ever able to positively link animal torture with Satanic activity.

She didn't do these things, and the result was a skewed article that treated Ms. Johns and Ms. Lant like experts on witchcraft and Satanism. That was careless of her, no doubt, but certainly not malicious.

Her mistake warrented a nice letter expressing the wish that she had presented both sides of the story, instead of just quoting detractors. That nice letter might go on to tell her about that other side of the story. Witches don't sacrifice animals. "Satanic activity" mostly turns out to be urban myth and teenage thrill-seeking. People who call themselves witches but do these things are just wackos who cannot be considered representative of the art and/or religion called witchcraft.

All this, Ms. Brutlag knows now. Her follow-up article corrected any negative assumptions her readers might have made about witches. Good work, team! A happier outcome could not have been asked for.

But for those of us who attacked, threatened, or abused her, consider: How can we expect to be known as a peaceful, loving, caring people if we spend our time hurling insults? How can we hope to gain mainstream respect if we overreact to the slightest slight?

Pagans who choose to be visible take on a grave responsibility. We have to be the best representatives of our faith possible. More: We have to be the best representatives possible of our Gods.

We should be educating the media, not opening fire on it. The impression the media get of us is the impression they will give to the world.

Bio: Nicole J. LeBoeuf is a wordwitch and dreamworker from New Orleans, Louisiana, and will eventually return there. Raised Catholic, she has been a practicing Wiccan since age 13 (which adds up to One Whole Decade), and has been blessed with an understanding and loving family that attended in droves her handfasting to John W. Little, also Pagan. She is a graduate of the University of Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with plans to pursue a creative writing graduate degree at the University of Colorado. Her two kittens, Uno and Null, say hi.

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