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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
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
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
- 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
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
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
And she removed the article from her website... even if she also
every Pagan signature in her Guestbook correcting it. I remain hopeful
she will respond positively to requests for a retraction.
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
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
- 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
But they should never be blamed for sentiments expressed "within
the quote marks." They are only responsible for how the quotes are
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
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
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
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
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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