Follow Winegarner’s Rules When Reporting on Pagan and Minority Religions

Journalist Beth Winegarner has written an excellent how-to piece for Poynter, an institution dedicated to improving journalism, on covering stories that may involve Santeria, Palo, Paganism, or other esoteric religions. While the whole piece is well worth the read, and contains relevant examples, I want to excerpt just the “rules” for the sake of simplicity.

  1. Don’t take what police or other sources say at face value.
  2. Find & interview real experts.
  3. Write carefully, with attention to relevant details.

Over the years, I have dinged journalists over, and over, and over, and over again when it comes to covering religious or spiritual practices they may not understand. Most of the issues could have been avoided had they simply followed those three steps. Far too many reporters go for the simple sound-bite, taking a police statement, or neighbor’s account, at face value, and not following that up with commentary from an expert on the subject.

Let’s take a recent example, the arrest of Daniel Hess and live-in girlfriend Lacey Day for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old family member. Hess apparently “indicated and justified, or tried to justify what he had done by his belief in Wicca which is a form of witchcraft, or the practice of witchcraft.” We hit strike one when reporters simply take those statements at face value, we hit strike two when NBC affiliate WTAP cites only one outside source, Dictionary.com, for information on Wicca. The Marietta Times also flunks on step two, citing the Wicca.org website as their only authoritative source on Wicca. Luckily, The Marietta Times redeems itself somewhat by finding an actual living-breathing Wiccan minister to comment on the indictment hearing.

“Hess and Day are each facing two third-degree felony counts of sexual battery. During the investigation into the alleged incidents, Hess claimed the acts were a part of his belief in the religion of Wicca. Harry Dorman, an ordained Wiccan priest with Circle Sanctuary, a national Wiccan organization based in Wisconsin, said neither Hess nor Day is a part of the organization. He also said the religion does not promote sexual assault of children during rituals.”

The Marietta Times actually following up and getting an expert source on-record is quite a advancement, and no doubt at least partially due to the proactive media stance of Circle Sanctuary. Which brings me to my final point, and the unofficial fourth rule (or perhaps a corollary for Pagans) not mentioned in Winegarner’s excellent piece.

4. Pagan and other minority religion groups need to take a proactive stance with media outlets, and create their own media as well, if they want to be treated fairly.

This is something I’ve been harping on for a long time, but it really does work. Take the Turner family of Bowden, Georgia, whose son, Christopher (11), was facing religiously-motivated harassment by his school. In that instance, grass-roots reporting led to Pagan media interfacing with local and national Pagan groups, and was ultimately noticed by a mainstream newspaper. That paper then took the lead from the work Pagan organizations and media had already done, ensuring a story that was positive, balanced, and sympathetic to our perspective. That’s not going to happen every time, but the more involved we are in the process, the better our chances of Winegarner’s rules getting followed when someone covers a potentially sensationalist story. In the meantime, whenever you read a story about Pagans, adherents of Santeria, Vodouisants, or any other minority religious, see if they follow the rules.

For those who’d like to read more from Beth Winegarner, she has an excellent blog entitled “Backward Messages” that analyzes stories about youth culture, debunking the pernicious myths about Goths, emo kids, video games, and other perennial targets for media pundit ire.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Anonymous

    I agree, the fourth rule is important (though not a rule for journalists). Some occultists, Satanists in particular, are interested in seeming scary/offputting to normal people, so they almost embrace these connections with crime and darkness. They don’t believe it will ever really harm them.

    • http://PaganCenteredPodcast.com Dave of Pagan Centered Podcast

      It’s important to note that Church of Satan, Temple of Set and even the Theistic Satanists all go out of their way to correct misinformation and distance themselves in a public medium from those they feel are just posers of their particular path.

      Yeah, in the day-to-day, they do embrace the scary stuff… but when there’s something serious going down, they get to business.  However, this is a reactive approach and by then the PR damage has been done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    I agree with all these rules, and the fourth one has been my passion for the last 21 years of my life. Jason and I share this concept in more ways then people realize. We need to take different approaches but yes we can get our information out there for everyone to see. 

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    5. Never consult a self-denoted expert who makes a living giving speeches to police departments.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    These same rules should be religiously applied whenever we encounter stories about non-monotheistic and/or traditional and/or indigenous (etc) religions in other parts of the world, especially stories originating from Africa and India. If, for example, there is a story from Benin (the heartland of Vodou) with a headline screaming: “Magic and Murder”, and the subtitle claims that the story is an “investigation” of “sorcery related infanticide”, then don’t take it at face value. Duh. Even if the story happens to be in every progressive’s favorite and most politically correct “news” source, Al Jazeera. I mean, why would a news organization owned and run by Muslims want to denigrate practitioners of African Traditional Religion? Oh, wait …..

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com/559083265/dualism-polarization-polarism-gigo/ Karen A. Scofield

    Of course, many of you know this but, and Jason has certainly addressed it, but I’m just putting it out there once again…

    Many have been heavily conditioned to believe that “real experts” are those who share their particular world view lens or “reality filter,” or at least a mainstream one. That’s why Kerr Cuhulain’s series, “Witchhunts, Exposing the Lies,” was so sorely needed. I see your Wild Hunt blog as an ongoing second generation expose, Jason. Thank you.

    The problem is certainly incredibly prevalent in politics and race to the point that many or perhaps even most U.S. Americans display great difficulty and unwillingness in finding and recognizing “real experts,” as compared to all the disinformationists and prejudiced thinkers who pose as “the” real experts. As a result, many people often rarely wander out of their own “camp” with an open, discriminating mind (not to be confused with a mind full of racial, religious, sexual and other prejudices).It’s really scary that so many people are so heavily conditioned to do that.Maybe that all goes back to the very word credibility and it’s history. Origins: Middle English, from Latin credibilis, from credere (which is belief, basically, and what “is” belief…?).

    But I think it also goes back to our more primitive human tendencies that we can overcome with sound logic, EQ (emotional and social intelligences), less stinkin’ thinkin’ and higher quality education (not all of which we’re going to get from public or even some college educational systems). The thing is, humans often dogmatically believe/follow those within their own pack or whatever identity in rather divisive ways that tend toward contagion and binary or black and white thinking. Okay, so we know that, but what’s the answer? I agree with Jaron Lanier that we have to “Confuse the Status Monster” or find a variety of ways through which to have status or credibility. I loved the part of his speech labeled “You Are Not A Gadget: “Individual/ Pack behavior on the Internet.” You can view it on youtube.

    …And I think your #4, Jason, is one way of doing that. Yes.

  • Malaz

    On topic:
    http://news.yahoo.com/mexican-agents-probe-family-3-ritual-murders-180955948.html

    Off topic:
    (nothing about Navratri this week?)

  • Kilmrnock

    Very good jason , keep it up. We asa commmunity need people like you bring such things into the light , the open. Thank you , my freind

  • http://PaganCenteredPodcast.com Dave of Pagan Centered Podcast

    Okay, I’ll bite because I think being proactive is generally a good thing.  Being proactive with police is usually a matter of giving them a call and letting them know one is a religious leader and if they need some help with understanding something, just give me a call any time or come to my house (and providing them with a home address)

    I know there’s a bunch of Journalists who comment here… so I pose the question – what’s the course of action for those of us Pagans/small Pagan groups who want to do outreach to our local media as you advise?  Is it the same as what I recommend for dealing with police, or is it different?

    • Anonymous

      Give them a call or send an email, introduce yourself, and let them know you’re happy to answer questions anytime they’re working on a story that involves x, y, and z faiths and they have questions. 


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